On the evening of December 10, 2003, Bart arrived at his parent’s home excited that he’d finished his last university exam. Kent and Tricia, both 51, presented him with a Rolex watch as a graduation gift before the family headed out to dinner. ‘We had a wonderful time,’ Kent later recalled.
Arriving back at the house, the rest of the family walked ahead while Bart ran to his car to get his phone.That’s when younger brother Kevin opened the door to a terrifying situation. Stepping inside, a man shot him in the chest and he fell to the ground. Tricia was shot next, followed by Kent who received a bullet to the chest and into his arm. Bart arrived to the bloody scene of all three members of his family dead or dying. Heroically wrestling with the gunman, Bart was shot in the arm before the intruder fled. A neighbour called an ambulance but it was too late for Kevin who was dead, while Tricia died on the way to hospital.Thankfully Kent and Bart were both going to survive.
Recovering in hospital, Kent was understandably overwhelmed with fury at the stranger who’d killed his wife and son. ‘All I could feel for this person was an incredibly deep and powerful hatred,’ Kent told The Washington Post at the time. But Kent soon realised his thoughts of revenge were consuming him so he vowed to forgive the man responsible, no matter how hard it may be.
As Kent and Bart recovered from their injuries, Detective Marshall Slot was becoming increasingly frustrated with the murder investigation. Police first thought the Whitakers had disturbed a burglary, but the evidence wasn’t adding up. While drawers and cupboards in the house had been found open, none of the contents were disturbed. And the only item stolen was Bart’s phone, the one he went back to his car for. The intruder had even left the murder weapon behind.‘The burglar leaves the gun, leaves all the electronics, but takes a phone. That was a real oddity,’ Detective Slot told ABC News in the US.
Then, another puzzling piece of information surfaced – Bart had never enrolled at university, so couldn’t possibly be graduating. Bart went from being a victim to the main suspect. Suspicion was further confirmed when a friend of Bart’s, Adam Hipp, approached the police and said Bart had talked about wanting to kill his family with him, offering to pay $US20,000 if he helped. Adam then described the plan he’d discussed with Bart – which was a mirror image of the actual crime.
By now it had been seven months since the murders and Bart and Kent were back in the family home. Concerned for Kent’s safety, Sergeant Slot informed him that he strongly suspected Bart.‘You are living with the man who intended to murder you,’ he told him. Kent confronted Bart. ‘He continued to deny it... I didn’t know who was telling the truth,’ Kent said. Remembering his vow of forgiveness, Kent informed police that he would stand by Bart, even if he was guilty.
Police finally got a breakthrough when, in August 2005, a man named Steven Champagne confessed to being recruited by Bart to drive the getaway car on the night of the murders. He named Chris Brashear, another of Bart’s friends, as being the shooter. Finally, investigators had all the evidence they needed and arrested Bart. Aware that Bart’s crimes made him a candidate for capital punishment in their home state of Texas, US, Kent begged for his son’s life to be spared, but the jury weren’t as forgiving.
In March 2007, Thomas ‘Bart’ Whitaker was found guilty of orchestrating his family’s murder and handed the death penalty. Chris Brashear pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison, while Steve Champagne took a 15-year prison term in exchange for testifying in Whitaker’s trial. Bart admitted he wanted his family dead because he felt he could never live up to the person they wanted him to be.‘I wanted revenge for being alive,’ he said. ‘There was an idealised version of me. And then there was me.’
As Bart’s execution loomed, Kent and his new wife, Tanya, continued to appeal to have the death penalty replaced with two life sentences. He claimed that Bart had completely turned his life around since the murders. ‘I have seen too much killing already... I don’t want to see him executed right there in front of my eyes,’ said Kent. ‘I know Tricia and Kevin would not want him to be executed.’ But Detective Slot had a different view.‘I’m left with the conclusion that Bart Whitaker is a sociopath – a true sociopath,’ he voiced.
On February 22 this year, the day of his execution, Bart, 38, had a last meal of chicken enchiladas, rice, beans and vegetables. Earlier in the day, Kent had travelled to the prison and touched his son’s hand through the glass to say goodbye. Then, just 30 minutes before he was due to die by lethal injection, Bart was spared. His death sentence was commuted to life behind bars without the possibility of parole. ‘I feel a great sense of relief,’ Kent told US People magazine. ‘He’s been given a second chance at life.’
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