May 1, 2009— -- Sugar Land, Texas, is an idyllic, upper-class suburb 40 minutes southwest of Houston. But in December 2003, the quiet community was shattered when a family of four was ambushed by an armed intruder as they entered their home.
Today, Sugar Land native Bart Whitaker is on death row in Texas, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to lethal injection for masterminding a plot to murder his parents and brother. And he came very close to getting away with it.
"I wanted them dead," Whitaker, 29, told ABC News. "It was my idea."
By all accounts, Bart Whitaker and his younger brother, Kevin, were as close as two brothers could be. Bart and his father shared a passion for distance bicycling, and the family went on vacations to places like Cancun, Mexico. To outsiders, there seemed to be a lot of love in the family.
The evening of Dec. 10, 2003, began with a special announcement at the Whitaker residence. Bart Whitaker told Kevin and his parents, Kent and Tricia Whitaker, that he had finished his final exams at nearby Sam Houston State University and would be graduating. To honor his achievement, his parents presented him with a Rolex watch, and that night the family went to a popular restaurant to celebrate.
The family snapped photos over a festive dinner and congratulatory dessert. But secretly, Bart knew that even as he smiled for the camera, an intruder had quietly entered their home and was waiting for their return. If everything went according to his plan, in less than 30 minutes his brother, mother and father would all be dead.
"I don't really know a better term for how I was feeling, other than I was on auto-pilot," he said. "I wasn't even aware of myself."
"We had a wonderful time before dinner and then packing up and driving over to the restaurant, and all the way home," Kent Whitaker said.
When the family arrived home, Bart, knowing what awaited his family inside the house, ran down the driveway, saying he needed to take his cell phone out of his car.
"Kevin opened the door, stepped in, was shot," recalled Kent Whitaker, who survived the attack and still lives in the home. "Tricia ... stepped up to the door, was shot. I looked in the door and was shot."
Bart says he ran into the house and pretended to try and catch the shooter. They wrestled a bit and then Bart was shot in the arm, to make him appear to be a victim.
"It was to distance me from the guilt," he said. "But also I think on an internal level it was me realizing that there was no way that I could come out of this physically unscathed."
A neighbor called 911, and responding officers found 19-year-old Kevin Whitaker dead where he fell, a single bullet in his chest. Tricia Whitaker died of a single gunshot wound soon after being airlifted to the hospital.
Investigators Question Burglary Theory
Kent Whitaker survived his gunshot to the arm. Also wounded, Bart made a convincing fourth victim.
After clearing the house, police initially thought they were dealing with a burglary gone awry.
"When the dispatcher told me that four people had been shot, I initially thought she was joking with me," said Sugar Land homicide Sgt. Marshall Slot, the lead investigator on the case. "The crime scene that I was investigating was a burglary gone bad, where the victims were shot by the suspect and the suspect fled the scene."
Slot scanned the crime scene for any clues that might help him find the killer. He found drawers pulled open as if by a burglar, a gun safe that had been pried open, four spent shell casings and a 9-mm handgun with four bullets missing from its clip.
But Slot's investigation led him to one dead lead after another. Police tracking dogs picked up a scent in the house and followed it outside, but only to a dead end. Crime scene investigators found no fingerprints. They took the gun back to the crime lab for a closer examination, but a palm print they found wasn't big enough to identify one particular person.
"It seemed like every piece of evidence that we collected, we ran into dead ends," said crime scene investigator Max Hunter. "Left and right."
Bart Whitaker had good reason to believe he'd gotten away with murder, but Slot was beginning to doubt that the crime was the result of a burglary gone bad.
For one thing, he said, the dresser drawers were pulled out but not rifled through. There was no evidence of a break-in, and the only thing missing from the house was Bart Whitaker's cell phone.
"The burglar leaves the gun, leaves all the electronics, but takes a cell phone that we couldn't find in the scene," Slot said. "That was a real oddity that stuck out in everybody's mind."
As journalists descended on the story, one detail reported in a local paper raised a red flag for Slot: Bart Whitaker had not, in fact, graduated from Sam Houston State University. Actually, he had not even attended the school.
Soon after, a Sugar Land police officer recalled that he'd been called to the Whitaker house once before, two years earlier, regarding an allegation that Bart had threatened his parents' life.
"It was something that a friend overheard Bart talking to his roommate about, and they concluded that it was a misunderstanding that was based on the friend drinking and that there was nothing to it," Kent Whitaker said.
"All those little pieces set off bells and whistles in our heads -- just thinking, we need to start looking at the son," Slot said.
Sugar Land Murder Suspect Flees to Mexico
When they were released from the hospital, Bart moved back home to be with his father. For the next seven months, he spent every free moment with his father, studying the Bible, while the investigation made little progress.
He said he didn't come clean to his father, who had pledged to forgive the shooter, because he was "a coward."
"I didn't want to cause that pain on me primarily, and on anyone else, secondarily," he said. "So, I just was weak."
Then late one night, a man walked into the Sugar Land police station and introduced himself as a former friend of Bart Whitaker's. His name was Adam Hipp.
Hipp revealed that Bart had hatched a second, previously unknown murder plot that was aborted at the last minute -- a plot in which Hipp was recruited to be the shooter.
"One of the plans that he laid out to me that he and Bart had discussed was the exact mirror image of the actual crime," said Slot.
Once Hipp's story was verified, there was a new urgency to warn Kent Whitaker about his son. Slot encouraged Kent to move out of the home, but he refused.
"We feel wholeheartedly that he is responsible for this, and that you are living with a murderer," Slot recalled telling Kent Whitaker. "That you are living with a man who intended to murder you."
In July 2004, Bart Whitaker fled the country and headed to Cerralvo, Mexico, a town about 50 miles south of the border. Using the name "Rudy Rios," he befriended people and began showing up at church and turning on the charm for a guitarist he met there named SindyLu Salinas.
The two began a relationship, and Salinas said the Rudy Rios she knew was very romantic. She brought her new boyfriend home to meet her parents, and he was an immediate hit. Her father, Homero Salinas, even hired "Rudy" to work at the family's furniture store.
Back in Sugar Land, the investigation seemed like it had gone cold, until another break in the case -- this time, a big one: In August 2005, a man named Steven Champagne, who lived a few doors down from Bart Whitaker, said he wanted to come clean and tell police what he knew about the case. He confessed to assisting in the crime and provided the entire story of what happened on that December 2003 night.
Champagne told investigators that Bart had set up the crime and lured his family to dinner to celebrate his fake graduation from college. As the Whitakers celebrated, Champagne said he watched from a car in the parking lot. Meanwhile, Bart's roommate, Chris Brashear, hid in Bart's SUV outside the Whitaker home. Champagne detailed how Brashear entered the house with the key and disabled the alarm with the code Bart had given him. Champagne said he followed the family home and parked on a nearby street and waited.
"[Brashear] said Bart's brother had walked in first," Champagne recalled in his confession. "And, when Chris shot him, he said before he shot him he thought he smiled. And then Chris shot his mom and then shot Bart's dad in the shoulder. And then, he acted like he wrestled around with Bart and shot Bart in the shoulder."
Bart Whitaker: 'I Am What I Am'
A minute later, he told cops that Brashear joined him in the car and they fled the scene.
"Bart said his family was worth a lot of money," Champagne said, explaining his motivation. "He said he would give us some money -- I mean millions of dollars."
Having the confession was one thing, but Slot still had no physical evidence to link Bart to the murders. But then Champagne dropped a bombshell. He explained that he and Brashear had thrown a bag full of evidence off of a bridge into a nearby lake.
A police dive team was able to dredge up a soggy duffel bag full of decomposing evidence. Though the bag had spent two years at the bottom of the lake, detectives were able to obtain a DNA profile of Brashear on the mouth of a water bottle.
Among the other items in the bag was a badly damaged cell phone. A high-tech data reconstruction process at a lab in the U.K. identified Bart Whitaker as the owner.
"This is the Eureka moment," Slot said. "This is definitely when we said, 'We've got it.'"
Slot had the physical evidence he needed to link Bart to the murders, and he obtained an arrest warrant. But he didn't know that his chief suspect was hiding in Mexico until he got a phone call from a man named Rudy Rios, a bus boy at the country club near the Whitakers' Sugar Land home. Rios told Slot that he had sold his identity to Bart Whitaker and helped him escape.
Whitaker was arrested in Mexico without incident on Sept. 22, 2005.
In March 2007, a jury convicted Bart Whitaker of the capital murder of his mother and his younger brother. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection. The shooter, Brashear, received life in prison without parole. The getaway driver, Champagne, got 15 years for his role.
"How do I reconcile what Bart did to his family?" Slot said. "I'm only left with the conclusion that Bart Whitaker is a sociopath -- a true sociopath."
Bart's reaction to that assessment: "Well, then I am what I am."
At his son's sentencing, Kent Whitaker took the witness stand to plead for his son's life, but to no avail. The jury sentenced Bart to death. And when that day comes, Kent said that he plans to be there, supporting his son to the end.
"He's an amazing man," Bart said. "And, whether or not I'm a person incapable of love, I am a person capable of feeling a very deep respect for that man."
Incredibly, Kent Whitaker remains steadfast in his ability to forgive. He's even written a book, "Murder by Family," in which he tracks the pain, the tears and the faith that carried him through it all. He also details the letters between father and son, including a letter he wrote to Bart that ends with, "My son, I love you. All is forgiven."