By all accounts, the Whitakers were a perfect family living in a community outside of Houston, Texas. That was all shattered on Dec. 10, 2003, when the family of four was gunned down as they entered their home. Tricia Whitaker, a retired teacher, and her 19-year-old son, Kevin, died from their injuries. The dad, Kent, survived as did their son, Bart.
“I think, “Oh my God, he shot all four of us,'” Kent Whitaker told “48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant.
The investigation into the shooting revealed an intricate plot and a ruthless conspiracy to eliminate three of the four Whitaker family members. The mastermind of the plot? Bart, who hated his family and wanted their money. In 2007 he was tried and convicted of hiring the hit man to kill his family and hurt him, too, to cover up the crime. He was given the death penalty.
This is where most cases end; not this one. Since his son was convicted, and to the disbelief of some, Kent Whitaker has fought to save Bart from being executed.
Whitaker, now remarried, made one last plea to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole in February 2018. “We’re not asking them to forgive him or let him go. We just want them to let him live,” Whitaker said.
The emotional story of murder, conspiracy and forgiveness goes all the way down to the day Bart Whitaker was scheduled to die. Bart had a final meal. His father visited the prison for the last time before his scheduled execution.
“We touched hands through the glass and said our goodbyes,” Whitaker said.
Could Bart Whitaker be saved before time ran out?
FOUR SHOTS FIRED
John Flores: Sugar Land is very middle class … upper class, white collar. It’s a nice place. Everything’s new. You hang out with your neighbors. You hang out with your neighbors’ kids.
For John Flores and his best friend Kevin Whitaker, life was sweet in Sugar Land, Texas.
John Flores: Almost anything is at your fingertips. You can do whatever you want, lot of fun.
But that all changed on the night of Dec. 10, 2003, when Kevin and his family were gunned down in their home.
Det. Marshall Slot: That night, when we’d just gotten home from church, and got the call of a quadruple shooting. That just doesn’t happen out here in Sugar Land.
Marshall Slot was the lead detective assigned to the case.
Det. Marshall Slot: It looks as if it’s a burglary gone wrong. The family is coming home from dinner. It’s plausible that they could have surprised a burglar.
But as Detective Slot combed through the Whitaker home, he realized things weren’t adding up.
Det. Marshall Slot: In the master bedroom, the dressers, an armoire, all had drawers open on them, but they were all open equal distance. It was very neat and orderly.
Peter Van Sant: Normally a burglar would throw everything out of the drawers to see if there’s any valuables in there.
Det. Marshall Slot: Yes, sir.
Detective Slot began to suspect the burglary had been staged.
Det. Marshall Slot: None of the items of value inside the house had been moved around. The electronics, laptops, jewelry, none of those items that are typically taken in burglaries.
And then there was the murder weapon: it was the Whitakers’ own gun.
Det. Marshall Slot: The gun safe had been pried open and it was in a very isolated portion of the household. This is looking more and more like this person knew this gun was here and obtained it for a specific reason.
Detective Slot turned his attention to the Whitaker family’s history, hoping it might provide some answers. He started with Kent Whitaker’s relationship to his wife Trisha.
Kent Whitaker: We met on a blind date. Walked in her house and I didn’t know what I was expecting, but she came down and I thought I’ve never had a blind date like this before. And we hit it off very well right from the start.
Peter Van Sant: How long after you first met Trisha did you realize to yourself, “I’m in love with this woman”?
Kent Whitaker: Couple of months, maybe.
Peter Van Sant: Really?
Kent Whitaker: Yeah.
Peter Van Sant: And did she feel the same way about you?
Kent Whitaker: Yeah. Yes, she did.
And then came their two boys, Bart and Kevin.
The Whitakers were doing well. Kent was a successful accountant. Trisha, an elementary school teacher.
Barbie Harrington: Trisha had a great rapport with children. Parents adored her. The staff adored her. She was just fun.
Barbie Harrington and Peggy McLane, Trisha’s close friends and coworkers, knew her true love was being a mom.
Peggy McLane: They were everything. That’s all she talked about. She loved those boys.
Bart, the eldest, did well in school and had a quirky sense of humor.
Peggy McLane: He was fun. He was witty. He was respectful.
Peter Van Sant: A good son?
Peggy McLane: A good son.
A son who shared a passion for biking with his dad.
Kent Whitaker: He and I would spend hours and hours on training rides and on organized rides.
Peter Van Sant: What would you talk about on those trips?
Kent Whitaker: Everything.
Kevin was the sensitive one.
Kent Whitaker: Kevin was man at a young age. He would not back down from injustice. But he would be so quick to forgive.
Peter Van Sant: This was as healthy and vibrant and loving a family as you’d find, wasn’t it?
Kent Whitaker: Thought so. I was very happy with my family. I loved them.
Then came Dec. 10, 2003.
Peter Van Sant: How did that day begin?
Kent Whitaker: Bart was supposed to be graduating from college. He called and said he was through with his finals and he wanted to go out to eat and celebrate.
Peggy McLane: Trisha was so proud. She was telling Bart she was going to jump up and down and scream, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Kent Whitaker: We all celebrated. We laughed. We told some jokes. We — we teased each other and took some pictures and gave Bart his graduation gift, which was an expensive watch.
Peter Van Sant: What kind of watch was it?
Kent Whitaker: It was a Rolex. It was what he’d always wanted. It was just a happy night.
After dinner the Whitakers headed home. Then, unimaginable horror — four shots fired.
Kent Whitaker: I start praying and I say, “Father, you know, if it’s my time to die, I’m ready. It’s OK. But protect my family.” And it just was awful.
Cliff Stanley: I saw Kent lying down. I went up to him and he was shot. He says, “I’m bleeding very badly.”
Neighbor Cliff Stanley, the first person on the scene then went to check on Trisha.
Cliff Stanley: She was still alive, was kind of moaning. I said, “What happened?” And Trisha said, “He shot us.”
Peter Van Sant: Did she say who he was?
Cliff Stanley: No.
Bart was lying in the living room, wounded. As for Kevin —
Cliff Stanley: I could see Kevin clearly and Kevin was finished.
Cliff Stanley: Kent, Trisha, and Bart were rushed to the hospital, but Trisha didn’t survive.
Kent Whitaker: It was horrible.
Peggy McLane [crying]: I lost a friend that taught me how to be a better teacher and a better mother. She was just a really good person and I miss her so much.
John Flores: And I remember I walked over to my friend’s mom, and I just said, “Was it Kevin?” And I felt her — I felt her nod on my– on my head. I just kind of shook my head and said “OK.”
NEWS REPORT: Detectives spent the day searching for anything that would lead them to a killer …
By the next day, grief turned to anger.
Det. Marshall Slot: Kent, in no unclear terms, told me he wanted us to catch whoever did this. He was upset, he was hurt.
And Bart seemed to share that anger.
John Flores: He didn’t say much. But he pulled my friend Matt and I to him and he said, “We’re going find who did it.”
Detective Slot continued his routine questioning of the survivors. Bart told Slot he was about to graduate from Sam Houston State University. But the next day came stunning news.
Det. Marshall Slot: The information had come into the Sugar Land Police Department from Sam Houston State University that Bart was not enrolled as a student.
Peter Van Sant: Wait a second. He was not a student?
Det. Marshall Slot: He was a freshman on academic probation.
Peter Van Sant: A freshman?
Det. Marshall Slot: Yes, sir.
Peter Van Sant: Wasn’t even a senior.
Det. Marshall Slot: Correct.
Peter Van Sant: So, what do you do with this information?
Det. Marshall Slot: Bells and whistles start going off that “why is this kid lying to us? … What’s he got to hide?”
Kent Whitaker: What were you thinking? You lied to us about being in school? You weren’t even near graduating. How could you have done that?
Peter Van Sant: Did you ask Bart why he had lied to you? Why he had said he was a student at Sam Houston State?
Det. Marshall Slot: Yes, sir. He just didn’t want to disappoint his family. He had needed a break; the stress of school had gotten on him.
Then, just five days after the shooting, another bombshell.
Det. Marshall Slot: It was about 11, 11:30 at night. …The sergeant on duty paged me and said, “Hey there’s somebody here who wants to talk to you.”
Slot met the stranger in the darkened parking lot behind the police station.
Det. Marshall Slot: He explained to me that he felt he had information that was crucial to the investigation.
The man said that Bart Whitaker wanted him to help kill his family.
BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER
Six days after Trisha and Kevin Whitaker were gunned down at their home more than 1,000 friends and family gathered to celebrate their lives.
Brittany Barnhill: So many people, it was incredible.
It was a time to share fond memories.
Friend of Trisha [at funeral]: Almost every conversation with Trisha included something about Kent, Bart, and Kevin.
John Flores [in tears at funeral]: Kevin was a faithful loyal friend. He never compromised anything.
Brittany Barnhill [in tears at funeral]: I loved Kevin so much. I cried with him. I went to senior prom with him.
Brittany Barnhill [at funeral]: Bart, I cannot tell you how much Kevin looked up to you. You were his hero.
Amid the sadness there was also anger.
Man at funeral: This murderer is still out there. The police needs our help. For your own families for everybody’s sake, let’s catch him.
But what no one here knew, among the mourners was a man police were closely watching.
Peter Van Sant: Your suspicions are focusing on which person?
Det. Marshall Slot: Bart, definitely.
That stranger Marshall Slot had met in the police parking lot turned out to be an old friend of Bart’s named Adam Hipp. And he told the detective an extraordinary story: that Bart had approached him several years earlier with a detailed plan to kill his family.
Det. Marshall Slot [at computer]: This is a diagram that Adam Hipp drew for me during our three-hour long conversation. It called for Adam Hipp being the shooter, shooting the family members as they came in the residence.
According to Adam Hipp, the plan even included a twist to fool police: Bart wanted Hipp to shoot him in the shoulder, so he’d look like a victim, not a suspect.
Det. Marshall Slot: It was unbelievable.
Peter Van Sant: So what Adam Hipp was telling you was essentially the blueprint for what happened in 2003, the real shooting?
Marshall Slot: The exact blueprint.
But Bart appeared to have nothing to hide. He agreed to help detectives by reenacting what happened the night of the shootings:
BART WHITAKER [police video]: That’s when I heard a bang. And I don’t remember if, I probably would have run up this way.
But Bart’s behavior only heightens Slot’s suspicions.
Det. Marshall Slot: Everything is very vague. It could have been this, but it could have been this.
MARSHALL SLOT [police video]: So that’s about the distance you were from him when you got shot?
BART WHITAKER [police video]: Yeah. I guess. It might have been closer, I don’t really remember.
Det. Marshall Slot: The fact that he wasn’t able to give me a lot of detail about it … It was just unusual to me.
Peter Van Sant: Police had indicated to you that he was a suspect in this case.
Kent Whitaker: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: Were you wondering at all in the back of your mind, maybe he had something to do with this?
Kent Whitaker: I considered it but — but didn’t consider it seriously. He promised me that there was nothing to it, that he did not have anything to do with it, that he loved Trisha and Kevin and me. …It was inconceivable.
But after Adam Hipp’s story, Detective Slot felt otherwise. He decided to check out two of Bart Whitaker’s closest friends — Chris Brashear and Steven Champagne.
Det. Marshall Slot: Let’s see if he approached any of his current friends to do this.
Chris Brashear and Steven Champagne worked with Bart at a country club just months before the murders. Slot asked them to provide what police call “scent samples.” Using bloodhounds, he compared those samples to evidence collected at the crime scene. Slot’s hunch paid off when he got a match.
Det. Marshall Slot: The dogs indicated that Chris Brashear’s scent … was on the drawers that had been moved that night.
More importantly, Brashear’s scent was found on the gun used in the homicides.
Det. Marshall Slot: Bingo. We’ve got our next prime suspect.
When Detective Slot grilled Brashear, he denied any involvement in the shootings.
Det. Marshall Slot: We told him we had a definitive link between him and the murder weapon on the night of the shooting.
Peter Van Sant: What are you seeing on Brashear’s face?
Det. Marshall Slot: Horror. Panic. We struck a nerve with this kid.
Slot was now closing in on Bart Whitaker. Then one night, seven months after the shootings, Bart told his dad he was heading out to a club.
Kent Whitaker: Bart told me he would see me the next day. …Well, that was the last I saw him. …He disappeared.
Peter Van Sant: Just fell off the face of the earth?
Kent Whitaker [affirms]: Um, hmm.
Det. Marshall Slot: I was angry. We’d kind of let him get away. That’s what I felt like.
Bart’s disappearance was a setback. But Detective Slot pressed on, focusing on the suspects still in Sugar Land — especially Steven Champagne.
Marshall Slot: We stayed on him and stayed on him and stayed on him.
Eventually, Champagne cracked.
Det. Marshall Slot: He informed me that he participated in the crime … and that Chris Brashear had killed the family.
Champagne confessed that he was the getaway driver, Chris Brashear was the shooter, and that Bart Whitaker was the mastermind behind the plan.
Det. Marshall Slot: This was the floodgates opening.
Champagne led Slot to a treasure trove of physical evidence.
Det. Marshall Slot: He led me to the place on the bridge over Lake Conroe where he and Chris Brashear had thrown items of evidence.
A chisel —
Det. Marshall Slot: — that Chris Brashear had used to break into the gun safe.
Det. Marshall Slot: — which happened to be the ammunition that was in the gun.
And two cell phones.
Det. Marshall Slot: Bart Whitaker had provided those to them to use during the course of carrying out the plot.
In September 2005, Sugar Land police arrested both Steven Champagne and Chris Brashear for the murders of Trisha and Kevin Whitaker. But they still didn’t know where to find Bart Whitaker.
BART’S NEW LIFE
When Bart Whitaker fled Sugar Land, Texas seven months after the shootings, he left behind a community and a father in disbelief.
Peter Van Sant: As a general rule, people don’t run if they’re innocent.
Kent Whitaker: No, they don’t. Oh, it was horrible. It was awful. …I just sat down and I just cried.
Like many a desperado before him, Bart headed south into Mexico. He ended up in a tiny village called Cerralvo, located about forty miles from the Texas border.
Bart started his new life in Cerralvo with about $7,000 in cash, money he had stolen from his father’s house. He could speak a little Spanish and soon he had a small apartment in town and a job at a local furniture store. He also had something else: a new identity.
Peter Van Sant: Who is this man?
Gabriella Gutierrez [through translator]: Well, I know him as Rudy.
Gabriella Gutierrez remembers her American friend named Rudy Rios.
Peter Van Sant: How would you describe him?
Gabriella Gutierrez [through translator]: Well, he was a friendly person. He liked to drink. He liked the beer. He liked to go with girls. He was very charming. He had a way with the ladies.
Cindy Lou Salinas [through translator]: I saw him, and I said, “Wow, he’s gorgeous.”
Cindy Lou Salinas first saw Bart in church of all places.
Cindy Lou Salinas [through translator]: I don’t know, I found him very interesting. The guys that I’ve known — I don’t know, he just had something nobody had.
After Bart and Cindy Lou began dating, her father, Omero, gave Bart a job at the family’s furniture store.
Peter Van Sant: What kind of a worker was he?
Omero Salinas [through translator]: Very good, very obedient. …I really liked him and held him in high esteem.
Cindy Lou’s brother, Ubaldo, befriended Bart and was impressed with his stories of adventure — like the one explaining his bullet wound.
Ubaldo Salinas [through translator]: He said he got the scar in the Afghanistan war. …He said there was a surprise attack on his group by the Afghanis. Most of those in his group were killed. He shot at one with his rifle, but there was another one who got him in the shoulder.
The entire Salinas family took Bart in as one of their own, and Bart told them they were the family he never had.
Cindy Lou Salinas [through translator]: He used to tell me that he was an only child. That he never loved his mother because his mother never loved him either. And that his mother was a prostitute, he used to say that. …His family never gave him the love he wanted. They only gave him money. They ignored him.
For 14 months, Bart lived a carefree new life as Rudy Rios – but it was all about to come to an end.
Rudy Rios [phone call]: To me he seems like a cool guy, but if he did that then he needs to pay of it, you know, what I mean.
Det. Marshall Slot [phone call] I agree.
Back in Sugar Land, Detective Slot got a phone call from the real Rudy Rios.
Det. Marshall Slot: He called me, anonymously one day at my office and said, “I know where Bart Whitaker is. I helped him get there.”
Rudy Rios and Bart had worked together at a Houston restaurant.
Det. Marshall Slot: Bart explained to him that there was pressure on him from law enforcement. Rudy said, “Well if you ever need any help, let me know. I’ve got family in Mexico that can help you out.”
According to Rudy Rios, Bart paid him $3,000 to escort him to Cerralvo. But when word spread of a reward for Bart’s capture, the real Rudy looked to get paid again.
Rudy Rios [on the phone]: If there’s a reward, you know, I don’t care. I’ll turn his ass in.
Peter Van Sant: How much?
Det. Marshall Slot: Ten thousand dollars.
Peter Van Sant: Ten thousand bucks.
Peter Van Sant: So, Rudy had dollar signs in his eyes when he came forward?
Det. Marshall Slot: Yes, sir.
Marshall Slot was there waiting when Mexican authorities dumped Bart back across the border.
Det. Marshall Slot: He glanced at me and then just down to the floor. I don’t know if it was a “you got me” look, but it was very satisfying to walk in that jail.
Kent Whitaker: The first time I saw him when they took him back from Mexico. I walk in and we’re separated by the bulletproof glass. I said, “Well, you look like you’re OK.” And he says, “Yes, I am.” And he says, “Dad, I’m just so sorry. I’m so sorry for all of it. It’s all my fault.”
Peter Van Sant: And what was the “it” in that sentence that he was referring to?
Kent Whitaker: The murders. He’s responsible for the murders.
Also waiting for Bart were Fort Bend County prosecutors Jeff Strange and Fred Felcman with an indictment for the murders of his mother and brother.
Prosecutor Jeff Strange: It is just the ultimate act of betrayal. …It doesn’t get any worse than this.
Peter Van Sant: Why did he have to kill them?
Prosecutor Jeff Strange: One, because that was the way he was going to inherit $1.5 million.
Prosecutor Jeff Strange: I think also to some extent deep down, Bart thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. And he just wanted to see if he could get away with the perfect crime.
In Fred Felcman, Bart had an adversary who is one of the toughest, no-nonsense prosecutors in Texas.
How would you describe Bart Whitaker?
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: There is a term they use in psycho lingo, psychobabble, of sociopath. In other words, a person who knows he’s doing something wrong but really doesn’t care. The old time Texas thing was that he’s just a mean sold on of a bitch, OK?
Because this was a multiple murder, prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Bart Whitaker.
FRED FELCMAN [in court]: Four shots fired. Four hits.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: It’s a good strong case.
In fact, it’s an overwhelming case. So much so that Bart’s defense attorney decides on a unique strategy. He will all but concede that Bart is guilty and use the trial to try and convince jurors that Bart’s life should be spared. And he has a man of unshakeable religious faith in his corner.
Kent Whitaker: Even knowing that he’d been guilty and responsible for this, I just can’t understand why it’s so necessary to put him to death.
FRED FELCMAN: Do you have any inkling whatsoever Mr. Whitaker that your son had been lying to you?
KENT WHITAKER: No, I didn’t.
Incredibly, Kent Whitaker has forgiven Bart.
Kent Whitaker: The first night in the hospital … I forgave everyone who was involved in this. …It is a gift of God that allows me to do this. …I think he gave me that gift so that when I found out that it was my son, that it would be a legitimate forgiveness.
The question now is: will a jury be as forgiving?
A RUTHLESS CONSPIRACY
Sugar Land, Texas has never seen a trial like this.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: This crime affected all of Sugar Land.
A case of multiple murder where the accused is being passionately defended by one of the people he tried to kill.
Kent Whitaker: If the state pursues the death penalty and receives it, then they will kill the last surviving member of my family.
Kent Whitaker believes his son’s eternal soul is at stake.
Kent Whitaker: I believe, as a Christian, that God can and does forgive and change people’s hearts. If they are sorry, if they repent, if they ask His forgiveness for real, He will forgive them.
But Jeff Strange and Fred Felcman say their duty is to uphold Texas law, not God’s law.
Prosecutor Jeff Strange: Kent Whitaker’s religious faith is genuine. Forgiveness is a big tenet of what he believes. And I respect that and I — I totally understand that. That’s not my job though.
Peter Van Sant: Does Bart Whitaker deserve the death penalty?
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: Yes. He meets the criteria we have in the state of Texas. He is a continuing threat. He intentionally caused these people’s death. And there is nothing mitigating about him. He wasn’t abused. He wasn’t surrounded by crime. I find it hard to believe anybody wouldn’t think he deserved it.
Three years after Trisha and Kevin’s murders, Bart Whitaker’s trial gets underway. Prosecutors present crime scene analysis, forensic evidence, and eyewitness accounts.
But it’s the testimony of Steven Champagne, one of Bart’s alleged accomplices, that everyone in the courtroom is waiting to hear:
JEFF STRANGE: What are you charged with?
STEVEN CHAMPAGNE: Capital murder.
Champagne says two months before the shootings, Bart offered both him and Chris Brashear a cut of a million-dollar insurance policy to help kill the Whitaker family:
STEVEN CHAMPAGNE: The conversation was about … when the family got back from eating dinner, that Chris would be in the house and shoot them.
On the night of the attack, Champagne was waiting in the getaway car when Chris Brashear quickly got inside:
STEVEN CHAMPAGNE: I asked him what happened. …He told me that he had shot all of them.
Defense attorney Randy McDonald can do little except attack Champagne for agreeing to kill for money:
RANDY MCDONALD: And it really didn’t bother you that three other human beings would be killed so you could have a better lifestyle?
STEVEN CHAMPAGNE: The way that I looked at it was they weren’t human.
As prosecutors build their case, more shocking details emerge. Investigators learn the 2003 attack wasn’t the first time Bart had tried to kill his family. He had made at least three other attempts using other friends as recruits.
JEFF STRANGE: Was it just a general conversation, “I want to kill my family. I want you to help me”?
WILL ANTHONY: Yes, sir.
In December 2000, Bart approached his college roommates Will Anthony and Justin Peters:
WILL ANTHONY: I was supposed to, as they enter the home, shoot the family, sir.
JEFF STRANGE: Will who was supposed to actually go into the house, was he going to be given anything to hide his identity?
JUSTIN PETERS: Yes. …He was given … black pants and black shirt and a ski mask.
JEFF STRANGE: By who?
JUSTIN PETERS: Bart.
Peters and Anthony actually made it to the Whitaker home. As planned, Will Anthony went to open a back window:
WILL ANTHONY: As soon as I touch it, sir, I tried to open it, an alarm went off.
The two men fled. But Bart Whitaker wasn’t scared off. Two months later he approached another friend with another plan. Remember Adam Hipp, Bart’s old friend-turned police informant? Under oath, Hipp publicly admits that he too once agreed to help kill the Whitaker family:
JEFF STRANGE: Why did you say yes?
ADAM HIPP: You know, I don’t know. I’m not proud of it, but for the simple fact I was kind of interested to see how far he would take it.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: We’re going, “Huh?” These were kind of people you would think, this is what you want your son to be, goes to college, gets a banking job, stuff like this.
Peter Van Sant: All-American boys.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: All-American boys.
Like Bart, all three young men came from well-to-do families.
Prosecutor Jeff Strange: Clean cut, kind of all-American kids. Justin Peters had been a national merit scholar. …I just could not see how this could happen.
Besides money, Prosecutor Felcman believes Bart Whitaker is a gifted liar and manipulator.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: He would actually seek out people, OK? …He would seek out the ones that were maybe a little weaker, that he got to know a little bit better, that had some investment in him.
Bart’s second plan to murder his family with the aid of Adam Hipp never went beyond talk. But by April 2001, Bart had hatched yet a third plot.
Peter Van Sant: So, Bart Whitaker was a determined young man?
Prosecutor Jeff Strange: Absolutely.
This time, the plan unraveled after Jennifer Japhet, a college acquaintance of Bart’s, found out about it:
JENNIFER JAPHET: I asked Bart if he was seriously going to let this happen.
JEFF STRANGE: And how did he react to that?
JENNIFER JAPHET: He came up to me and he gave me a hug and whispered in my ear that everything was going to be OK.
JEFF STRANGE: Did you called the police?
JENNIFER JAPHET: I did call the police.
Police, in turn, notified Kent and Trisha.
Kent Whitaker: It was just the far-outest thing that you can conceive of and we immediately said, “there’s no way.”
Bart told his parents it was all a misunderstanding. His parents believed him.
Kent Whitaker: In retrospect, you say, “What an idiot. How could you possibly have not seen this?” But the truth is we didn’t know they were lies.
Even after his wife and youngest son were murdered two years later, Kent still refused to believe that Bart was capable of such evil.
Peter Van Sant: Aren’t you putting two and two together here and saying maybe Bart’s responsible for this?
Kent Whitaker: Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t.
Peter Van Sant: Do you believe this crime could have been prevented if people had paid attention to the warning signs?
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: No…. Look at the actions of Bart Whitaker. You’re already caught, alright? But you still proceed to it. And you still go through it. Now, you tell me where along this line would Bart Whitaker, do you think, is going to stop?
Bart Whitaker’s trial lasted six days. The jury deliberates just two hours, returning with a verdict everyone was expecting:
JUDGE CLIFFORD VACEK (reads verdict): We, the jury, do hereby find the defendant, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, guilty of the offense of capital murder as charged in the indictment.
But the real drama of this case is the punishment phase. Now, for the first time, Bart Whitaker will speak openly about his obsession with killing his family:
BART WHITAKER [crying on the witness stand]: I feel horrible about myself, what I’ve done.
A FATHER’S PLEA
The punishment phase of Bart Whitaker’s trial is underway.
Kent Whitaker: This is daunting. Our son’s life is hanging in the balance.
And his father Kent hopes he can persuade the jury to forgive Bart as he has.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY RANDY MCDONALD: The ladies and gentlemen of the jury may not have the same faith. They may not have the same beliefs about what should happen to somebody. But is it your desire that they assess a life sentence in this case?
KENT WHITAKER: It has been from the start and it still is.
RANDY MCDONALD: Would Trisha feel the same way?
KENT WHITAKER: I promise you, she would have been appalled that the state chose to pursue the death penalty in this case.
But it will take more than the wishes of Kent or Trisha to spare their son’s life.
To everyone’s surprise, Bart decides to put his fate in his own hands and speak directly to the jury:
BART WHITAKER: I am 100-percent guilty for this. I put the plan in motion. If I had not done so, it would not have happened.
RANDY MCDONALD: And did you realize that you robbed your mother of a full life?
BART WHITAKER: Yes.
RANDY MCDONALD: You robbed Kevin of a full life.
BART WHITAKER: Yes.
RANDY MCDONALD: You actually even robbed your father of a full life.
BART WHITAKER [whispers]: Yes, sir.
RANDY MCDONALD: Do you feel any remorse for this?
BART WHITAKER: Yes, sir, I do.
RANDY MCDONALD: Who do you feel remorse for?
BART WHITAKER: For everyone involved starting with my dad, my mom, and my brother. [Cries, pauses.] Everyone I ever met in my life, I feel sorry for having come in contact with me.
Bart is finally asked the question on everyone’s mind:
RANDY MCDONALD: Can you answer the question why?
BART WHITAKER: No, sir. I have come up with a lot of the reasons for how I — how I got to where I was going, but they do not explain it. I always felt that whatever love they sent me was conditional on a standard that I just never felt I could reach.
Peter Van Sant: Bart Whitaker claims that he felt unloved. He felt he couldn’t live up to his parents’ expectations.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: Yeah, I heard all that crap, too. …There’s no evidence whatsoever this family ever did anything to him.They loved him unconditionally.
Kent Whitaker: I think he came to the decision that, you know, “I hate myself. I hate this life I’m in. If there’s just some way I can get out of it — maybe if my parents, maybe if my family was gone, I could be free of this and live a real life.”
For Bart’s life to be spared, he must convince the jury he is no longer a threat to anyone in or out of prison:
RANDY MCDONALD: Do you have any designs on any conduct that would in any way, shape or form, hurt another individual?
BART WHITAKER: No. The only people I’ve ever hated, and I know it was not for the right reasons, but the only people I ever hated were my parents and my brother.
RANDY MCDONALD: But the irony of it all is that your dad is actually the one that’s come to your rescue and put you back on track.
BART WHITAKER: He’s become my best friend in the last year.
JUDGE CLIFFORD VACEK: Mr. Felcman, I assume you’re going to be a while.
FRED FELCMAN: That’s a good chance.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman has waited nearly two years for this moment:
FRED FELCMAN: Your mother loved you, that her whole life was you and Kevin. But then you tell me you never felt loved by your parents?
BART WHITAKER: Yes, sir.
FRED FELCMAN: You find anything scary about this?
BART WHITAKER: I find something tragic about it.
FRED FELCMAN: Tragic, that I’ve got a defendant who’s that out of touch with reality?
Felcman wants to convince the jury that Bart Whitaker’s disconnect with reality makes him dangerous:
FRED FELCMAN: Somebody interacts with Bart Whitaker, it can be on a totally innocent basis, and you decide to perceive it different. You could kill that person.
BART WHITAKER: No, I could not.
FRED FELCMAN: But you killed your mother and brother on totally false circumstances, right?
BART WHITAKER: Yes, sir. I was a different person then.
Felcman reminds the jury of the lives Bart took:
FRED FELCMAN: Did you see your brother when you ran in?
BART WHITAKER: Yes, I did.
FRED FELCMAN: He was gurgling in his own blood, wasn’t he?
BART WHITAKER [crying]: Yeah.
FRED FELCMAN: You know, I’ve watched this whole trial and you never cried ’til now.
BART WHITAKER: I did earlier.
FRED FELCMAN: Why are you crying now?
BART WHITAKER: Horrible memory.
Bart tries one last time to convince Felcman, and the jury, that he has changed:
BART WHITAKER: You believe a person can’t be sorry for the things he did?
FRED FELCMAN: No. I think they can be sorry Mr. Whitaker. But I don’t think you are. I think you’re sorry you got caught and now you’re figuring out how to get out of the death penalty.
It took jurors only 10 hours to reach a verdict.
JUDGE CLIFFORD VACEK [in court]: The court does at this time upon those verdicts determine to you’d be sentenced to death.
Bart Whitaker is to die.
Peter Van Sant: What did that do to you inside?
Kent Whitaker: The feeling was a great deal of disappointment.
Despite all that he now knows, Kent Whitaker says he will never abandon his son.
Kent Whitaker: I mean, Trisha and Kevin, I miss them. But they’re in heaven and I’m going to heaven. And I have no doubts about that. I want Bart up there too.
Peter Van Sant: Some day in the future you’re going to get a phone call from somebody to tell you that Bart Whitaker has been put to death?
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: Yeah.
Peter Van Sant: What will that day be like for you do you think?
Prosecutor Fred Felcman: There’ll be a certain sadness. But it won’t be for Bart Whitaker. It would be for the father. It will also be a sense of satisfaction too, though. Justice has been done in this case.
Over the next decade, Kent Whitaker lobbies the state tirelessly for his son’s death sentence to be commuted to life. But when Bart’s appeals were exhausted, his execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2018.
The week before his son is to be out to death, Kent, now remarried, made one last desperate plea for mercy to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Kent Whitaker [to reporters]: We’re not asking him to forgive him or let him go we just want them to let him blive. …Bart was my the last surviving member of my natural family and no one in my family wants to see him executed.
Just two days before the sentence is to be carried out, the board makes what could be a life-saving recommendation for clemency.
Kent Whitaker [to reporters, smiling] I don’t think he’s going to believe it. You’re not going to believe it.
Kent Whitaker [to reporters]: This is Texas, this doesn’t happen. I’m just so encouraged the system has worked. This was the right thing — the right thing to do.
But the final decision has to come from the governor. And when execution day arrives, there’s still no word from him. So, Kent went to see his son for the last time.
Kent Whitaker: We touched hands through the glass and said our goodbyes.
NEWS ANCHOR: Breaking news. Less than an hour before Thomas Bart Whitaker’s 6 p.m. scheduled execution Governor Abbott spares his life.
Kent Whitaker [to reporters]: We were actually standing together praying when my phone rang … and so he said that we have a commutation. At that point, I put it on speaker and let everybody hear and the whole room erupted.
Bar releases a statement saying, “I’m thankful for the decision not for me, but for my dad.”
Kent Whitaker: It was overpowering. I was so grateful.
KENT WHITAKER STATEMENT AND TDCJ RESPONSE
Late Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, “48 Hours” received the following statement from Kent Whitaker regarding his son, Thomas Bart Whitaker:
“It has been 11 months since Bart’s sentence was commuted. The normal procedure is for TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] to reclassify him from Death Row solitary confinement, using the same extensive file that the Pardons and Parole Board based their unanimous decision upon. His intake officer said he should be cleared for general population in 2-3 weeks, where he would receive phone privileges and interaction with other inmates for the first time in 11 years. Eventually he could earn a contact visit with me. Yet, to this day, he remains in solitary confinement with no reclassification. What is the point of commutation if his life does not improve? No one within TDCJ can explain why.
“Administrative segregation is a lingering death that defeats the purpose of commutation. Life is more than drawing breath and pumping blood alone in a prison cell; it means interacting with others, such as family for whom commutation was given as much as to Thomas.”
In response, Texas Department of Criminal Justice director of communications Jeremy Desel said:
“The night of his clemency he was transferred to the Byrd Unit at Huntsville and essentially re-admitted to the system. He was assigned a new unit at an appropriate custody level. One thing that all offenders have taken into account for custody level is the nature of the offense and in this case, he was convicted of hiring a hitman to murder his entire family.”