April 27, 2009— -- 29-year-old Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, an intelligent, well-spoken young man from a model American family, who grew up with loving parents and a brother who adored him, is currently sitting on death row in Texas. Bart Whitaker is awaiting execution for a brutal crime that sent shockwaves through his hometown of Sugar Land, Texas: hatching a plot to kill his entire family.
In December 2003, Whitaker's mother Tricia Whitaker, brother Kevin Whitaker, and father Kent Whitaker were ambushed by a masked gunman as they walked in the front door of their Sugar Land home after a night out. Tricia and Kevin died from their gunshot wounds, but Kent survived. Bart Whitaker was shot as he faked a struggle with the fleeing gunman, and police initially thought he was a victim as well.
But in the following weeks, Bart Whitaker's story began to unravel, and Sugar Land police sgt. Marshall Slot began to see him as less of a victim and more of a suspect. Almost two years later, after a case full of twists and turns that included discoveries of prior unsuccessful murder plots, Bart's escape to Mexico, the confession of a getaway driver and the dredging up of a bag of evidence from the bottom of a lake, police were finally able to arrest Bart Whitaker and charge him with hiring two accomplices to help kill the family.
At his trial in March 2007, prosecutors alleged that although it wasn't Bart Whitaker himself who had pulled the trigger, he was responsible for his mother and brother's vicious murders because he masterminded the plan. The jury agreed, and convicted him of capital murder in connection with Tricia and Kevin Whitaker's deaths. His conviction made Bart eligible for the death penalty, but by this time, his father Kent had reached a conclusion that would surprise many and register as incomprehensible to some: he said he had prayed to God and asked for guidance, and God had told him to forgive. So Kent Whitaker forgave his son, and pleaded with the jury to spare Bart's life.
Both Bart and Kent Whitaker claim that Bart is a changed man, one who realizes he made mistakes, feels remorse and takes responsibility for his actions. But to many, the brutality of the murders combined with a lack of a clear motive suggests that Bart Whitaker isn't a repentant, but a cold-blooded murderer, a sociopath who deserves nothing less than a death sentence.
The shocking story is detailed in Kent Whitaker's book, "Murder by Family: The Incredible True Story of a Son's Treachery and a Father's Forgiveness." The following excerpt was provided by the publisher to ABC News.
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I had always heard that your life flashed before your eyes. But that's not what happened as I lay on the cold concrete that December night, watching the blood from a gunshot wound cover my white shirt. Instead, I found myself praying for my family. There had been four shots, one for each of us.
I told God that if it was my time, I was ready to die, but I prayed that he would spare my wife and two sons. I called to each of them but got no response except for a few quiet, wet coughs from my wife, Tricia. Although I couldn't see her from where I had fallen, I knew that it was her because when I had first tried to get up, I saw her blond hair splayed out on the threshold of our home's front door. Though I had never heard that kind of cough before, I instinctively knew it was the sound of a person trying to clear lungs filling with blood. The silence coming from the dark house was horrible. My God, I thought, he's shot us all.
Life can change in a moment. Just seconds earlier we had been a happy family of four returning from a surprise dinner celebrating our older son Bart's anticipated college graduation. He had called that afternoon, telling Tricia that he was through with exams and was coming home for the evening. We had enjoyed a great seafood dinner, including a dessert with "Congratulations!" written with chocolate syrup on the plate's edge. I snapped a few pictures, and then we took the short drive home. How strange that those would be the last photos we would ever have together.
As we got out of the car, our younger son, Kevin, a sophomore in college, led the way to our front door. He stepped inside, with Tricia right behind him. I heard a huge noise, but I didn't immediately recognize it as a gunshot. A moment of silence, and then Tricia exclaimed, "Oh, no!" as another shot was fired. I still didn't understand what was happening. I stepped forward and for the first time saw inside the house. The light from the front porch illuminated a ski-masked figure about eight feet away, standing next to the stairs. I couldn't see Kevin, though he was lying in the shadows next to where the man was standing -- or Tricia, who must have been right by my feet. I just stood there wondering which one of Kevin's goofball friends was playing a joke on us with the paintball gun.
Suddenly I was slammed in the shoulder with enough force to send me spinning back and to my left. Landing faceup on the front porch, I still didn't grasp what was happening. As I tried to get up, I felt a searing pain in my right arm and realized it was badly broken. A fourth shot rang out as comprehension flooded in. We had been shot. We had all been shot. It struck me that I might be dying.
Then my neighbor Cliff was kneeling over me, comforting me. "Don't worry, buddy! Help is on the way!"
In the distance I heard sirens as Cliff pulled off his T-shirt and pressed it to my wound. I realized then that no one knew where the shooter was and that Cliff might be in danger. I panicked. "Get out of here! He may still be inside!"
Cliff told me to hold on and ran home. Moments later a squad car pulled up in front of our house, and then another, and a third. I was aware of more sirens, including the deep foghorn of a fire truck, but they were still far away. With heightened senses I heard muffled footfalls as police ran into and around the house, guns drawn and flashlights flicking illumination into the shadows. After only a minute or two someone called out that the house was clear. By then the whole cul-de-sac that faced our home was full of emergency vehicles. It couldn't have been more than five minutes since the shootings.
People were everywhere. Neighbors were streaming out of their homes while paramedics swarmed. Two men worked on me, cutting away my leather jacket and my shirt, trying to stop the bleeding. I repeatedly asked for information on my family, and finally one of the paramedics quietly said, "Sir, please, let us do our job. You're in good hands, and lots of good folks are with the rest of your family."
Then, over all the confusion and noise, as they hurried inside the house, I heard one policeman ask another, "What do you want to do about the DOA?"
My heart froze. Dead on arrival. I knew that at least one of my family members had died. But which one? And why? Were they all dead?
The sound of a helicopter cut through the night, and I saw the landing lights and then the cherry-red body of Life Flight. Three paramedics raced a gurney down the sidewalk, and one of the police officers told me that they were taking Tricia to the hospital. My heart leaped with joy, because that meant she was still alive. Thank God! But then I realized that this also meant that at least one, and by now perhaps both, of my boys were dead. I began to shake all over and knew I was going into shock. I chattered to the paramedics that I was freezing and that they had better get something to cover me. They replied that as soon as Tricia's took off, a second Life Flight would land for me.
What? Life Flight for me? Was I hurt worse than I realized? Did this mean that both boys were already dead, and there was no need for them to be flown to the medical center?
I really didn't have time to think about it: with a storm of air and sound, the helicopter took off, and moments later a second one landed. I was put on a gurney, covered with warm sheets and a blanket, and stowed in the back. With the high-pitched scream of jet turbines, we took off and began our eight-minute flight to the Houston Medical Center, part of perhaps the finest network of hospitals in the country. If anyone could keep my family alive, the medical staff there could.
As we flew, I caught occasional glimpses of freeways and buildings through the copilot's floor windows. My mind jumped back six months to my only other helicopter ride. The boys and I were in Colorado, on an adventure to celebrate my 55th birthday. We spent one day mountain biking and another racing along challenging trails on four-wheel ATVs. But my favorite part of the trip was the two days of intense whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River as it snaked through the Royal Gorge. While on the river, we saw a sleek red helicopter crest the gorge 1,100 feet above us, roll into a steep dive, and pull up just before hitting the river. It rocketed fifty feet over us, blasting us with downdraft. All six of us guys in the raft went wild.
The next day we took the ride.
It was like a roller coaster without tracks. Incredible! The boys and I enjoyed it so much that we did it again two days later before coming home; it was one of the most wonderful memories of my life. But as I looked out at the lights of the hospital landing pad, remembering that fantastic trip, I felt as though I were watching the home videos of some other person; there was just no connection. I was numb.
It took only a moment for the trauma team to whisk me inside, where I was surrounded by doctors and nurses -- none of whom would tell me anything about my family. The next thing I knew, my mom and dad were there. Someone from the hospital administration arrived, and when I asked her about my wife and sons, she told me not to worry: my son Bart was being transferred by ambulance and would arrive shortly. He would be treated in this same room, just a few feet from me. That told me everything. They were only working on two of us.
I turned to my parents. "Mom, I think there's a good chance that Tricia and Kevin are dead." Turning to the woman from administration, I asked, "Isn't that so?" She looked at me for a long moment, nodded her head, and said that it was.
Bart was wheeled into the room a few moments later. I learned that he had rushed into the dark house and, in an apparent scuffle with the shooter, had been shot in the left arm. He was in shock, reacting to the horror of everything. The trauma team scurried around, cleaning wounds and applying temporary casts, since both of us had broken arms. The bullet had entered my right shoulder and traveled through the arm muscle, striking midhumerus and shattering the bone. Bart's upper left arm was broken where the bullet had hit. Amid the organized chaos, things began to sink in; God was allowing the truth to come a little at a time.
I felt God's presence and comfort. On the one hand I was beginning to absorb how radically things had changed, while on the other I had a calm assurance that I was not alone and that God would knit whatever happened into his plans for good. Scriptures of comfort came to mind. It was as if God gave me a shot of emotional Novocain. Even though I was becoming more aware of the extent of the tragedy, I trusted God.
Before I knew it, I was being wheeled out of the trauma center and into a corridor. As we passed through the big emergency room doors, I was met by forty or fifty friends. Rolling through a canyon of loved ones, I was touched by the grief and worry in their eyes, and began to comfort them. I can't explain it; the words just came out. My response was unexpected and somewhat out of character.
Later that night, after the nurses had gone, I was finally alone with my thoughts. I lay there trying to wrap my mind around it all -- and wasn't doing a very good job. Piece by piece the reality settled onto my soul.
My wife, my lover, my best friend, the one who knew and loved me better than any other, to whom I had been true for 28 years, was dead. My son Kevin, with his incredible Christian faith, his crazy, fun-loving personality, and his passion for sports and the outdoors, would never graduate from college, marry or give us grandchildren. Bart was down the hall suffering a grief and shock that seemed even more intense than what I was feeling. At 55, I would be facing the last third of my life without most of my family.
For years I have told people that faith is not a feeling but a conscious act of will. You have to choose to trust and believe, especially when circumstances and your feelings are screaming that you can't trust God. The Bible says that God can take everything and work it for good for those who love him and are called to his service; well, Tricia and Kevin loved him, and so did I. We were all called to his service, but how could these murders possibly be worked for good? I could imagine no such scenario. And if that verse of the Bible was untrustworthy, what other verses might not apply when I needed them? I might as well throw it all away.
So here I was, in the middle of a horrific situation in which I had to choose to either go with my feelings and slip into bitterness and despair, or follow my own advice and stand on God's promises even when they don't make sense. I wrestled with this for a long time because I knew that I could go either way -- and that the consequences could be serious.
Finally, I chose to stand on the promises of God. It was one of the most important decisions I've ever made.
When I resolved to trust God, I felt a peace come over me that had nothing to do with the morphine drip. Then the next thought popped unexpectedly into my mind: What about the shooter?
I realized that God was offering me the ability to forgive, if I wanted to take advantage of it. Did I really want to forgive this guy? I know the Bible says we are to forgive those who hurt us. I know God tells us that vengeance is his, if he chooses to dispense it. I have even heard secular health professionals say that forgiveness is the most important thing people can do to heal themselves. But did I really want to forgive, even if God was offering a supernatural ability to do so?
In an instant the answer sprang full-grown into my mind. My heart told me that I wanted whoever was responsible to come to Christ and repent for this awful act. At that moment I felt myself completely forgiving him. This forgiveness astounded me, because earlier I had experienced feelings of incredible sadness and intense anger -- even the desire to kill the person responsible with my own hands. Little did I realize just how important my decision to forgive would be in the coming months. It would change everything.
I have had a hundred people tell me that they think I'm nuts -- that I should hate the shooter and cry out for vengeance. Perhaps I am crazy, but I believe that in those early moments God worked supernaturally, allowing me to forgive completely and immediately because he had plans for me, and those plans required that I settle the forgiveness problem once and for all.
For the next two days, as Bart and I waited in our rooms for surgery, we had a nearly unprecedented number of visitors. People were always lined up in the halls waiting to see us; they came and went day and night. In fact, the crowding was so severe that the hospital converted a double room on our floor into a hospitality suite stocked with fruit baskets, cookies, coffee, soft drinks, sofas, and chairs. The hospital showed a lot of class, but I think crowd control was also an important factor.
The next day I had my first visit from Detective Marshall Slot and his partner Billy Baugh from the Sugar Land Police Department. They questioned me extensively about what had happened, and I cooperated, telling them I would do everything I could to help them find out who was responsible for this murderous attack.
The detectives returned a day later to tell me they had learned that Bart was not about to graduate from college after all. In fact, he was not even enrolled in school. I was shocked at the news and horrified at the realization that, if this was true, this knowledge coupled with some mistakes Bart had made years earlier might distract the police from searching for the real killer and lead them to look at Bart as a possible suspect. Marshall told me that they were looking at every possibility, which confirmed my fears.
After they left I fumbled my way into a wheelchair and rolled down to Bart's room, where I found him asleep, as he seemed to be whenever I came to visit. It was as if he had crawled into a hole, trying to escape this nightmare. I asked his girlfriend (who had camped out at the hospital since the first morning) for a few minutes alone with my son.
"Bart, what were you thinking? You weren't even in school? How could you lie to us about graduation?"
Bart seemed to forcibly pull himself out of some private hell as he sat up in his bed. The curtains were closed, and the room was dark. Gloom pervaded the atmosphere, with those areas just outside the edge of my vision in deepest shadow. At the time the thought did little more than register in my subconscious, but I would later recall this oppressive darkness and do much thinking about it. For now, my thoughts were focused on Bart. A momentary flicker of strange emotions danced in his eyes; he seemed to careen between grief, shame, regret, and fear.
"Dad, I'm so sorry! I didn't want to tell you because I knew how much you and Mom were looking forward to my graduation. I just figured I could work it out and take the classes next semester, and nobody would know."
"Nobody would know!" I was furious. "How would we not know? How would they let you graduate? How did you get into this mess in the first place?"
"Things were crazy at work all summer. Some guys quit, everybody was working long hours, and with school starting, I just didn't have enough time. I'm so sorry! I decided to help at work and make up school in the spring."
"Do you have any idea what you've done? Thanks to this 'little' lie about graduation, the police think you're a suspect! In fact, right now you seem to be their only suspect. You weren't in school, you told everyone you were graduating, and they think you arranged to have us killed to cover it up. Can you see how stupid that was? Your lie has done the impossible -- it has made Tricia's and Kevin's deaths even worse because now the police think you were involved! Do you have any idea how bad this is?"
Years ago, on a bike ride, I saw a hawk fly right over me, so close I could almost touch it. Clutched within its talons was a field mouse, still alive. I saw the bird swoop up to its nest, bringing breakfast to her young; it would be impossible to forget the look of resignation and terror in the mouse's eyes as he passed over me. For a moment I saw the same look in Bart's eyes, but it was gone almost instantly, replaced with resolve."Dad, that's nuts! I didn't have anything to do with the shootings! I'm sorry about the lie, it just happened. I didn't mean to lie to you and Mom -- I was just afraid of what you would say, and I didn't want to disappoint you. This will be okay."
"I don't know. I'm so mad now, I could spit! I've told you before: you cannot ever allow yourself to start lying again! Look at the consequences of this one! If you hadn't told the lie about graduation, they would be looking elsewhere and might find the real killer before the trail gets cold. Now they're wasting time on you, and who knows how long they'll keep at it!"
After a while I calmed down, and I told him I loved him and that the police would soon realize nothing tied him to the shootings. I went back to my room, still angry, disappointed, and depressed. What would happen next?
As the days passed, two things happened: First, the investigation centered more and more on Bart as the mastermind of a plot to kill the rest of the family, assuming that his motives were greed and to cover up failures at school. Second, I came to realize that perhaps my life had been spared for a reason. God must have something important for me to do, because I could see no logical explanation for my still being alive. The bullet hit me well away from my right lung, and nearly six inches from my heart. The gunman couldn't have been that bad a shot. Not at that close range.It occurred to me that perhaps my purpose was to be God's agent of guidance and instruction for Bart. If he was innocent, I would be the anchor he relied on as he weathered the storms of suspicion; I wouldn't let him go through that horror alone. If he was guilty, I would be in a unique position to model God's unconditional forgiveness and love. I might be the person God would use to soften Bart's heart. And since I already had forgiven whoever was responsible, if Bart was guilty, he would be covered in a pure forgiveness, granted before I ever thought it might apply to my son. Either way, until I knew more, I would be nonjudgmental and supportive. While I couldn't gloss over anything or minimize the consequences of any wrongs Bart might have committed, I still needed to show him that God forgives and that there is always hope.
Maybe I'm crazy. But I took comfort in knowing that I was doing what God wanted me to do. I like reading that line in the Bible about the wisdom of God being foolishness to man. Maybe a nut was exactly whom God intended to use.
Excerpted from Murder by Family: The Incredible True Story of a Son's Treachery and a Father's Forgiveness, by Kent Whitaker. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Howard Books.