December 10, 2003
Sugar Land, Texas
Three members of the Whitaker family are shot as they return home from dinner
The Whitakers’ elder son, Thomas Bartlett “Bart” Whitaker (23), announced to his family he had completed his studies at Sam Houston State University and would soon be graduating. (It was later revealed there were no records from the university indicating Bart had finished his schooling.) The family decided to celebrate the occasion by visiting a local restaurant. When they returned home, Bart stayed back a short distance after claiming he needed to retrieve his cellphone which was still in his car.
Bart’s younger brother Kevin (19) was the first to enter the home, followed closely by his mother Patricia “Tricia” Whitaker and father Kent Whitaker. According to Kent, he heard sounds he did not immediately recognize as gunshots and saw a figure in a ski mask. Kent assumed the intruder was one of his sons’ friends playing a prank on the family with a paint gun. “Suddenly I was slammed in the shoulder with enough force to send me spinning back and to my left,” Kent later recalled. Then he felt a searing pain and realized he had been shot.
Kent, Tricia, and Kevin had each been shot once in the torso; Kevin died at the scene while Tricia died after being airlifted to the hospital. Bart had also been shot once. His injury, however, was to his arm and was obtained during a staged struggle with the shooter, Chris Brashear (21), whom he had hired to shoot his family to inherit their estate worth an estimated $1 million. Bart was intentionally injured to deflect suspicion from himself.
Suspicions turned toward Bart in June 2004 when he suddenly fled the country to Mexico where he assumed the name Rudy Rios. “I was a soldier that was AWOL because I had been shot up and didn’t wanna go back,” Bart recounted about the story he had told those he met in Mexico. “That was told from the first minute I was down there to cover for me.”
Bart was arrested the following year, and Kent asked the District Attorney’s office not to seek the death penalty against his son. Bart offered to plead guilty to the murders in exchange for two life sentences though the prosecution refused, stating Bart had not been remorseful and was manipulative. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Brashear, who had fired the fatal shots, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years. A third defendant, Steve Champagne who was 21 at the time of the killings, had followed Bart and his family to their home from the restaurant then drove Brashear from the scene after the shootings. He was given a 15-year sentence in exchange for testimony in Bart’s trial.
After the conviction, Kent continued to plead for clemency on his son’s behalf, requesting the sentence to be reduced to life. “Victims’ rights should mean something in this state,” Kent told the court, “even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance.” He also stated, “[Bart] is the last member of my direct family, and he’s gonna be taken from us by the state of Texas in the name of justice in a way that none of my family wants.” To help his case, Kent produced letters from several death row inmates and former prison guards who believed Bart deserved to be spared capital punishment.
Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance.
The prosecution, by contrast, still believed Bart should be executed for the crimes. “I’m trying to figure out why [the board members] think they should commute this, and why the governor should even give it a second thought,” Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor of the case, said. During the appeals process, the court was also presented with evidence Bart had “walked past his wounded father, his dying mother and his dead brother so that Brashear could shoot [him] in the shoulder, as they had planned, in order to direct suspicion away from [his] involvement in the offense.”
Bart was scheduled to be executed on February 22, 2018. Forty minutes before his execution, Governor Greg Abbott signed a proclamation commuting Bart’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. “In just over three years as governor,” Gov. Abbott said in a statement, “I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now. The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible. The crime deserves severe punishment for the criminals who killed them. The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison.”
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