April 30, 2009 -- How could a boy who grew up in a loving and generous household turn into a man who plots the murders of his entire family?
Kent Whitaker has grappled with that question since one terrifying night in December 2003, when he returned home from a dinner out with his wife and two sons and was ambushed by a masked intruder wielding a gun.
In the chaos of a few moments, Kent heard four loud bangs and felt a searing pain in his chest. The entire family had been shot. Kent survived his wounds, and so did his oldest son Bart, but his wife of 28 years Tricia and his younger son, 19-year-old Kevin, were killed.
Today Bart Whitaker, 29, is sitting on Death Row in Texas. He was convicted of the capital murders of his mother and brother and sentenced to die by lethal injection.
But despite all that he had been through, Kent Whitaker decided to support his son in a way many couldn't comprehend, most of all Bart himself. Kent forgave his son.
"This has been a horrible thing that has been continuing and ongoing," Kent said. "If I had been holding on to revenge and anger and had turned bitter, I would still be in the middle of it."
While he was still recovering in the hospital, Kent says he grappled with feelings of revenge, but ultimately experienced an epiphany.
"Deep down inside, as time went by, I became more and more convinced that there was a chance that [Bart] was responsible for the shootings," he said. "But there was something else that happened the night of the shootings that is the foundation for my actions ... and that was my decision to trust God when it didn't make sense. Because when I chose to do that, I realized He was leading me down a path to ask me if I would forgive the shooter."
Kent said his son had a nurturing and happy childhood. As young boys, Bart and Kevin played together constantly, and the family took vacations to nearby Austin or Houston, or to visit a lake house they shared with his wife's parents. In the later years, the Whitakers would take their sons skiing or to Cancun.
"Tricia and I both loved our kids unconditionally," he said. "We guided them as morally as we could. ... We were very active in both of their lives. And we were very supportive. So when I look back?. I don't see anything glaring that would have caused something to go wrong."
"He was a very precocious young kid, very intelligent," he said of Bart. "He spoke early and he had a great deal of self-confidence."
Praying for Family's Safety; Questioning Faith
On Dec. 10, 2003, Bart Whitaker's plan to have his family killed was carried out with the help of two accomplices -- one hired to pull the trigger, the other to drive the getaway car. Bart now fully admits he set the plan in motion and arranged for his family to be out at dinner, only to come home to the ambush.
"As I was driving home that night, Tricia called to say that Bart had finished his finals and wanted to go out and celebrate his upcoming college graduation," Kent recalled.
After dinner, the family drove home together.
"When we parked, Bart walked down the driveway to pick up his cell phone which was charging in his car. That was his excuse for being away from us. And Kevin opened the door, stepped in."
Kent says that he heard two loud noises that he didn't initially recognize as gun shots.
"I didn't really understand what was happening," he said. "The idea that there might be a gunman in my own house, it just didn't, it just didn't compute. And so I stepped forward to look inside, see what was happening. But a moment later, I was shot, too, in the right chest. ... And shortly after that, Bart ran into the house. And as according to plan, received his gunshot wound in his left arm as an attempt to remove suspicion."
When he realized he might die, Kent prayed to God to protect his family.
"I called out to each one of them and the only answer I got was some quiet wet coughs from Tricia. And while I'd never heard those kinda coughs before, I instinctively knew the sound of someone trying to clear their lungs from filling with blood," he said.
Kevin Whitaker was pronounced dead at the scene, and Tricia and Kent were airlifted to a nearby hospital, a trip Tricia did not survive.
Kent said that while he was at the hospital, he began "taking stock of what I'd lost" and initially questioned his deep faith. But he ultimately came to the conclusion that "faith is an act of willpower."
"I just made the conscious decision to tell God, 'I don't know how you're going to do it, I don't know when or where, but I'll believe that you'll work this for good.' And I think events have proven that He has."
Police Close in on Bart Whitaker
It took police in Sugar Land, Texas, an affluent Houston suburb, less than a week to suspect that 23-year-old Bart might have been involved in the crime. But it also took almost two years to gather enough evidence to arrest him.
During the months after Kent was released from the hospital, father and son lived together and underwent what Kent called a seven-month "discipleship." They spent almost every day together reading the Bible and discussing their faith. Kent says that while he suspected his son might have been involved in the murders, he didn't fear for his own safety.
"He had opportunities if he wanted to," he said. "No, I slept well. I slept well. I actually was looking at my time with him as a bridge ... this is why I had been allowed to live that night."
In the summer of 2004, police caught a huge break in the case. A man who claimed to be a former roommate of Bart's came forward, alleging that he had been involved in a plot to kill the family years before that was never carried out. It still wasn't enough to arrest Bart, but police warned Kent that he might be in danger.
Three days later, Bart disappeared. Unbeknownst to his father and the police, he had fled to Mexico.
"By the time that he ran away...things came kind of shattering down on me then," Whitaker said. "Because I realized that even if he had been innocent and was just afraid, he shouldn't run. And if he ran, the odds were that he really was responsible."
"Until [police] could give me some kind of proof or evidence or something to believe them with, I wasn't going to abandon my son," he said. "He was the last of my family. I was going to stand with him."
In August 2005, more than a year after Bart had fled to Mexico, police received another windfall: Bart's neighbor, Steve Champagne, came forward and confessed to the plot to kill the Whitakers. He placed Bart front and center as the mastermind. He also led police to a bag of evidence that contained forensic clues directly linking Bart to the plot. After a few more weeks, the cops were able to track down Bart in Mexico.
Kent described the first time he saw Bart since he had become a fugitive.
"So I walk in this room ... with the bullet-proof glass between us, and there's Bart," Kent said. "And he looks, physically, he looks good. And he and I look at each other for a minute and say, you know, oh, how are you? And he said, 'Dad, I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. And I don't know why. But I'm going to do everything I can to make this as fast and painless for everyone as possible.' And it was at that point I realized he was saying, 'I did it, I'm sorry, I want to confess.'"
Father's Lesson: Forgiveness Is Not Easy
For Kent, the biggest hurdle to overcome was determining what motivated his son to commit the murders.
"This is the most important thing in my life, knowing why this happened," he said "And he and I wrestled with this for a long time. And based on things that we picked up in letters and in conversations, the short deal is that he never could accept the love that Trish and I gave him.
"He always felt empty inside. He didn't know what emotions felt like. And he hated it...he felt that there was something wrong with him, that he was defective. He started building these masks to try to hide the fact that he was -- that he was broken."
Over time, Kent says that he was able to heal because he was able to forgive.
"The important thing about forgiveness is that it's not easy, but it just promises that when you get to the other side of all this, then you can find happiness and joy, and that there is a restoration of life. And that's what I wanted. I wanted that from the start."
Kent says he decided to go public with his ordeal and write a book about his journey because he "became convinced that this story of forgiveness was something that God wanted people to hear. And that I was such an unbelievable example of the act of forgiveness.
"I prayed about it and I believe that Tricia and Kevin both would've said, 'there are kids out there just like Bart who don't know who they are, who feel like they're empty, and, while they aren't going to go out and kill their parents, there is going to be an emptiness in their lives...that can be resolved if they will come forward and talk about it.'"
To this day, Kent remains steadfast in his support of Bart, saying that his son is a changed man now and doesn't deserve to die.
"He changed. He's a different person and now he's going to go to Heaven, which wasn't going to happen before. So from a faith standpoint, if you're ever able to look at life through the lenses of eternity instead of just what you see around here in the physical world...you'll realize that there are things that happen down here that appear to be awful that aren't in the long run."