What Would Drive Young Man to Kill His Family?

Psychiatrist calls convicted murderer Bart Whitaker "an empty human being."

April 28, 2009, 5:33 PM

May 1, 2009— -- Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, an intelligent, well-spoken young man from a devout Christian family, is on death row in Texas, awaiting execution for orchestrating a vicious assault on his entire family. He was convicted of the murders of his mother and brother and sentenced to death.

Throughout his trial for capital murder, Bart, 29, never denied that he had masterminded a plot to kill his family.

"I wanted revenge for being alive, and I blamed [my parents] for that. I blamed them for who I was. Instead of blaming me," he told ABC News' Mary Fulginiti. "I recognize now how wrong I was on all of that. But at the time, I really believed in that. I held them completely at fault for the man that I had become."

In December 2003, when he was 23 years old, Bart hired his roommate to shoot parents Kent and Tricia Whitaker and younger brother Kevin when they returned home from dinner. Tricia and Kevin died during the attack, but Whitaker's father survived. The accomplice shot Bart Whitaker in the arm to make him appear to be a victim.

"It was sort of like a game of chicken between me and the other guys," he said of the plot. "Who flinches, who stops? Even up to the point that the gun went off ... I didn't expect it to happen. It was never a reality for me."

Bart says he had an "idyllic" childhood, but added that he always felt that there was something wrong with him. He said that from a young age he felt as if his parents' affection had to be earned, and he wasn't quite making the cut.

"In order for me to be that person that my parents would love or that they did claim to love, I had to be better than I was," he said. "There was an idealized version of me and then there was me. ... So every time I failed at reaching that goal of mine, I felt like a failure."

Bart says the plan -- which he attempted a number of times -- started as a casual conversation but then progressed into something more sinister.

"I've been painted as this master manipulator ... but the truth is there wasn't a single person in any of the attempts that ever once said, 'Hey, this is a bad idea.' ... We were a bunch of pasty white kids from the suburbs," he said. "You know, this stuff doesn't really happen in the real world. You play at it, but it doesn't really happen."

In the days after the murder, Bart and his father spent time in the hospital together while recovering, and it was then that Kent shared with Bart an incredible revelation: He had decided the only way to pull through the trauma was to forgive the shooter, whomever it might be. But Bart still couldn't bring himself to tell his father the truth about his involvement in the crime.

"Hiding it all from everybody else was sort of like hiding it from myself, also," Bart said. "So it was one of those things that I had to do to get through that day without opening my veins up on the floor."

Killer Claims He's a Changed Man

There was no sign of a break-in at the Whitaker home, and police attention turned to Bart after they discovered he lied about attending college. They initially lacked evidence to arrest him, so for the next seven months, Bart and his father lived together and discussed the Bible.

Bart continually found himself astonished at his father's ability to forgive.

"I mean, he was the first real Christian that I'd ever met that really did what Jesus Christ told him to do," he said. "You know, I'm very tough on a lot of Christians as being hypocrites, even though I am one myself ... and while there was a side of me that was wanting to just shout, 'It's me, it's me, forgive me!' I couldn't do it. I wasn't strong enough at the time."

Bart fled to Mexico when police began to close in on him as a suspect, but he now says he's accepted the punishment he's received.

"I don't think you can live [on death row] and not want to be here," he said. "But on the other side, if you were to open that door for me, I wouldn't leave. ... The only way I get through living day to day is knowing that I'm paying off a portion of that guilt minute by minute."

He now claims he's a changed man, a change he says began immediately after the shooting.

"I lay on the floor in my blood. I would say that's when it started," he said, adding that the change continued during his time in Mexico.

"I became very simple in Mexico," he said. "There was all of the wastefulness that I had exhibited in my prior life, the Ferragamo shoes and the expensive stuff all became meaningless to me down there."

He knows some people may never accept that he's changed or offer him forgiveness.

"Would I like to be believed? Certainly. But what's important to me is that in these last years I try to do something good for somebody, and that doesn't require that I'm believed or not," he said.

Psychiatrist on Whitaker: Sociopath and Narcissist

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a child and adult psychiatrist and an expert in parenting and the importance of connection and forgiveness, says Bart is an example of "the power of disconnection," after watching a tape of his interview with ABC News.

"He didn't feel the love from his parents, from his brother, from family friends that he needed to feel," Hallowell said. "He's reading existential philosophy at the age of 9, he's feeling cut off, set apart from others, he has loving parents and brother and yet he's feeling rejected by them. And this to me, it's just a glaring statement of the power of disconnection."

Hallowell said he might classify Bart as a sociopath and a narcissist based on his answers, tone of voice and body language in the interview.

"He seems like a very empty human being," Hallowell said. "And it's very tempting to speculate, you know, that, that he is what we call a sociopath. ... He seems singularly without remorse and without even the beginnings of remorse. And he sort of mouths the words, but you don't feel it.

"And as for narcissism ... people think of that as being ... self-centered. It's more simply that you're empty," he said. "You don't have the ability to give and receive love."

Hallowell went on to say that normally, people who become sociopaths grew up in environments where they were exposed to extremely traumatic events. But Bart clearly grew up in a safe, loving, generous household.

"I think we have to look at sort of new research that's coming along saying that, that some people are born with a nervous system with a, with a whole wiring that is just a little bit off, a little bit different, more susceptible to rejection, for example," Hallowell said. "[Bart] felt tremendously rejected and inferior, even though there was no reason, external real reason, he perceived rejection. And that may be just ... in the DNA."

But Fred Felcman, who prosecuted the case against Whitaker and his accomplices, thinks Bart's problems can be summed up more simply.

"I describe him as a user of people," Felcman said. "That's what I would describe him as. If there's nothing you can do for him, then he discards you."

Prosecutor: 'I've Never Met Anybody as Manipulative'

Felcman said Bart's crime met the requirements in the state of Texas that allowed for the death penalty to be an option: that he was a continuing threat, he caused the deaths of two people, and there were no mitigating circumstances.

"He didn't live in what they call a life of crime," Felcman said. "He had a good family. There's no reason whatsoever that you could understand why he started thinking this way."

He said Kent Whitaker's forgiveness and desire to spare his son's life did factor in the decision to consider the death penalty, but that ultimately Kent's forgiving nature didn't help Bart's cause.

"You could have a great father and be the most heinous person in the whole world, like Bart Whitaker. On the other hand, you could have a crummy father and be a great guy. So we don't try cases and you don't get punished based upon how good your parents are," said Felcman.

When asked if he was scared of Bart Whitaker, Felcman said, "I understand what he could possibly do. Yes. Yeah, I'm concerned by it. ... [Bart] is probably more of a threat than anybody I have ever tried for capital murder. ... I've never met anybody as manipulative as him. Never."

Bart says that he has tried to change.

"We do have the ability to overcome our worst moments in life," he said. "We're not defined by that. We're not our best moments and we're not our worst moments."

But Felcman doesn't believe it's possible for someone who plotted the murder of his family to transform himself.

"This is his core personality," said Felcman. "You might as well ask the lion: Are you going to stop being a lion? No. That's just the way it is."