A most unusual suspect

2007
A son is convicted of soliciting the brutal murder of his mother and brother.

The Whitaker family enjoyed their last meal together at Pappadeaux restaurant in Stafford on December 10, 2003. Kent and Patricia Whitaker’s oldest son, Bart, 24, was graduating from Sam Houston State University that weekend. Before leaving for the restaurant, Patricia, 51 and Kent, 54, had presented Bart his graduation gift: a Rolex watch.

When the Whitaker family arrived back at their home in Sugar Land’s upscale Sugar Lakes subdivision, Kevin, age 19, jumped out of the driver’s seat so he could unlock the front door. Patricia followed right behind Kevin, but Kent slowed to wait for Bart, who told his father he had to retrieve his cell phone from the Chevy Yukon parked on the street.

Kevin was shot in the chest as he walked into the family’s dining room. His car keys were found next to blood drops that spilled on the carpet to mark the spot where the bullet penetrated his heart. Patricia was next, also shot in the chest just as she walked through the door. Kent was standing at an angle on the front porch when struck, a bullet piercing his left chest and lodging in his shoulder. Bart was shot in the arm, later telling police he received his wound as he struggled with the intruder.

Patricia was Life-Flighted to Memorial Hermann Hospital but later died of her wounds. Kent and Bart were also taken to the hospital, but they both survived. Kevin was pronounced dead immediately, his body left behind as Sugar Land Police processed the crime scene.

A 9-mm Glock handgun was found on the kitchen floor next to the back door through which the intruder fled. Both Kent and Bart told police that the gunman was wearing black clothing and a ski mask. Kent told investigators that he could see white skin around the eyehole of the ski mask.

The investigation

Detective Marshall Slot was paged at his home and summoned to the crime scene. He was the on-call detective and thus assumed the responsibilities of the lead detective on the case. Upon arrival, Detective Slot was led to a black leather men’s glove lying on the curb next to Bart’s Chevrolet Yukon. Thinking “not another O.J.,” Slot ordered the glove collected for processing.

It was almost immediately clear to every responding officer and detective that someone had attempted to stage a burglary inside the residence. Several computers and expensive audio and video equipment were untouched, and valuable jewelry was found lying in plain view. In the first floor master bedroom, all of the dresser drawers and side tables had been opened about two inches, but none of the contents had been disturbed. A pillowcase was found lying on the floor next to the bed. The only fingerprints detectives found in the residence belonged to Bart and his family

Even more suspiciously, the intruder had known to enter a built-out crawlspace in Kevin’s bedroom on the second floor to pry open a small metal gun safe to retrieve the murder weapon. Blue paint was left behind on the safe where the metal had been dented and twisted to gain entry. The murder weapon belonged to Kevin, a gift from Bart. Six rounds of Cor-Bon ammunition were found in the Glock’s magazine, and the four shell casings recovered from the residence were also from Cor-Bon rounds. No other Cor-Bon ammunition was found in the residence although Kevin had other brands of ammunition for the handgun.

Deputy Keith Pikett of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department arrived with his nationally recognized scent-discriminating bloodhounds Quincy, Colombo, and James Bond. Pikett tracked his dogs from the rear of the residence where Detective Slot learned the gunman had fled. Each of the three dogs tracked back to Bart’s Yukon parked on the street in front of the house. Scent swabs were obtained from the black glove, the murder weapon, dresser drawers in the master bedroom, the pillowcase, and the damaged gun safe in Kevin’s room.

Things became clearer when on December 12, 2003, Sugar Land Detective Billy Baugh received a phone call from a source telling him that Bart was not enrolled in Sam Houston State and had not attended the school in some time. Police confirmed this information by obtaining Bart’s school transcripts with grand jury subpoenas. When confronted with this information, Bart told police and his father that he had informed his mother that he was not graduating.

The first big break

On December 15, 2003, a Dallas bank teller named Adam Hipp wandered into the Sugar Land Police Department requesting to speak with Detective Slot. Hipp had attended Clements High School in Sugar Land with Bart. He told Detective Slot that in the spring of 2001, Bart had recruited him to kill the Whitaker family so that Bart could inherit his parents’ share of the family construction business.

Hipp drew Detective Slot a diagram of the Whitaker house and detailed how Bart was to get the family out of the house by taking them to dinner but leaving a door unlocked to that Hipp could enter. Bart’s Baylor roommate was supposed to drive a pistol down from Waco to give to Hipp to use as the murder weapon. In the diagram, Hipp drew a stick figure of the shooter in the dining room and three stick figure bodies in the front foyer. Bart planned to be shot in the arm in an effort to avoid police scrutiny, as he would be the sole heir to the family’s estate, which police estimated to be approximately $1.5 million.

Initially, Detective Slot thought Hipp might be the shooter, but he later verified that Hipp was at work late into December 10, 2003. His check-out time at the bank was documented; thus, Hipp was eliminated as a suspect.

Police found Bart Whitaker’s former Baylor roommate, Justin Peters, in San Antonio. When interviewed by detectives, Peters admitted to his participation in the plot Hipp had described, which was planned for April 5, 2001. Peters also told detectives that Bart had originally recruited him and another Baylor student, Will Anthony, to kill the Whitaker family in December 2000, but that plot had also failed. Both times, Bart’s motive for murder was to inherit the family’s estate.

The focus narrows

Detective Slot learned that in December 2003, Bart was sharing his townhouse with a 21-year-old man named Chris Brashear, with whom Bart had worked at Bentwater County Club. A couple of doors down from them lived Steven Champagne, for whom Bart had procured a bartending job at Bentwater.

Both Champagne and Brashear were interviewed by Sugar Land detectives and agreed to submit scent and DNA samples. Deputy Pikett’s bloodhounds later selected Brashear’s scent in a “scent line-up,” indicating that Brashear had come in contact with the glove, murder weapon, drawers in the master bedroom, and gun safe from which the murder weapon was removed.

Adam Hipp retained an attorney and negotiated a non-prosecution agreement for his role in the April 2001 conspiracy in exchange for his continued cooperation with investigators. He agreed to assist police by contacting Bart and recording the conversations. Detectives Baugh and Slot met with Hipp prior to each conversation and scripted the direction they wished the conversation to take. Hipp initially told Bart that Sugar Land police contacted him and were traveling to Dallas to interview him. In subsequent conversations, Hipp mentioned details about the failed 2001 conspiracy and its similarities to the actual murders.

Bart agreed to pay Hipp $20,000 to lie to police about Bart’s involvement in the 2001 conspiracy. A Dallas post office box was set up in Hipp’s name to receive the payment, and a Highland Park Police detective agreed to monitor the box and maintain the chain of custody of any evidence mailed to it. On April 1, 2004, a Federal Express mailer was received containing $240 in cash. The return address was from K. Soze but listed Bart’s Willis, Texas, residence as the return address. One of Bart’s favorite movies, The Usual Suspects, featured a villain named Kaiser Soze, a criminal mastermind who walked away from police investigators after committing an elaborate murder. Bart often quoted to friends the movie’s closing line; “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Bart’s fingerprints were all over the mailer.

On June 28, 2004, Bart Whitaker’s Chevy Yukon was found abandoned with the engine running at an apartment complex in Southwest Houston. (Bart, at the time, was working as a waiter at the Hotel Icon in downtown Houston.) He had disappeared to avoid capture.

The wiretaps

In June 2005, Detective Slot, with the assistance of the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office, prepared an application for wiretaps on the cellular telephones of Steven Champagne and Chris Brashear. The suspects had not been in communication for some time, a major obstacle to our efforts. Bart’s whereabouts were still unknown; Champagne, after graduating from Marine Intelligence School, had been re-assigned to Camp Pendleton, and Brashear was in Houston. Detective Slot regularly monitored their cell phone records, but there was no evidence they were calling each other.

On August 9, 2005, DPS Director Tommy Davis authorized and signed the application for a wiretap, and Judge Don Strickland signed the order August 22, 2005. Sugar Land detectives worked double shifts at DPS headquarters, monitoring Brashear and Champagne’s phone calls. Though the suspects were not in communication with each other, the grand jury subpoenas sparked conversations with other friends and relatives. Sugar Land police served a number of grand jury subpoenas after relevant phone conversations, including one to Champagne’s girlfriend the day before police learned she was going to fly to California to visit him. Police also conducted alternating overt and covert surveillance on Brashear as they monitored his conversations.

Champagne spills

Finally, on August 28, 2005, police got the break they had been working for since December 2003. Steven Champagne met Detective Slot at a Starbucks in Conroe. Champagne had had enough and indicated that he wanted to tell police what he knew. He initially told Detective Slot that he unwittingly helped Chris Brashear drive away from the Whitaker home on December 10, 2003. He indicated that he did not know of the murders in advance but only helped dispose of some of the evidence in Lake Conroe after the shootings. Champagne failed a polygraph test and was subsequently informed that any offer of immunity was off the table.

The following day Steven Champagne was scheduled to appear before the Fort Bend County Grand Jury. After an all-day meeting with Detective Slot and FBI Special Agent Jim Walsh, Champagne gave a videotaped confession implicating himself, Bart Whitaker, and Chris Brashear in the murders of Patricia and Kevin Whitaker. Champagne took detectives to the spot on the bridge over Lake Conroe where he and Brashear had discarded a bag of items used in the crime. Arrest warrants were sought for Bart Whitaker, Chris Brashear, and Steven Champagne, and the latter two were arrested.

On September 14, 2005, Detective Slot spoke with a man who would identify himself on the phone only as “Mike Jones.” Jones told Slot that he knew Bart was in Mexico because Bart had paid him $3,000 to drive him there. The caller was later identified as Rogelio Rios, Whitaker’s coworker at the Hotel Icon.

Investigators learned that Bart was living with Rios’ father in Cerralvo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and had then fled to Monterrey, Mexico, to avoid capture and further hoping to find work. He was finally tracked down and arrested without incident as he appeared for a “job interview” at a Monterrey restaurant on September 22, 2005. A couple of months later, DPS Trooper Brandon Curlee recovered a canvas bag containing a Dustbuster used to clean the getaway vehicle, a metal pry tool whose paint matched the paint transfer left on the gun safe, a water bottle from which Chris Brashear’s DNA was recovered, and several Cor-Bon 9mm bullets.

The State seeks the death penalty

In December 2005 Fort Bend District Attorney John Healey publicly announced that we would seek the death penalty for Bart Whitaker. Doing so posed some interesting challenges. Besides the three co-defendants, the only witness to the offense was his father, Kent, whom we subpoenaed to testify. At all times during pre-trial preparation, Kent was cooperative and forthcoming. He was informed that he would be allowed to advocate for his son, should we reach the trial’s penalty phase, though such testimony is outside the bounds contemplated for victim-impact testimony.

After evaluating the facts, we determined not to pursue the death penalty for the triggerman, Chris Brashear. Studying the facts of the case and what was known about Brashear and Champagne, we felt that neither would have committed a violent crime without Bart’s influence. A plea bargain agreement was reached with Steven Champagne for 15 years in prison to the lower charge of murder in exchange for his cooperation in the prosecutions of Bart and Brashear. Immunity agreements had already been reached with Hipp, Anthony, and Peters to secure their cooperation during the police investigation.

In December 2006, while preparing for trial, First Assistant District Attorney Fred Felcman got an unexpected Christmas card from Bart. He had written that Fred should keep Fred’s family in mind during the holiday season. While the wording of the card was benign, it was Bart’s attempt to plant a seed in Fred’s mind that harm might come to his family. The card gave Fred an uneasy chuckle. We then discussed how we could use the card to place Bart on death row.

The trial

The first interesting development at trial occurred when Bart was arraigned before the jury. When asked, he refused to enter a plea or either guilty or not guilty, forcing Judge Vacek to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf. Bart did not want to formally take responsibility for the crimes but wanted to hedge his bets, as he knew the evidence of his guilt would be overwhelming.

The first person called to the stand was Kent, and he faithfully described the execution of his wife and youngest son and his subsequent shooting. A recorded jail call was played in which Bart expressed frustration to his father that he had not been offered a plea bargain for a term of years. He was also angry that his attorney had sent an associate to court for a recent setting, telling his father, “We are not paying for legal aid here.” Bart further stated that he wanted the “big guns” in court for the next appearance.

On the trial’s third day, Steven Champagne was called to testify. He detailed how he met and befriended Bart in spring 2003. Champagne further told the jury that Bart frequently told him and others that Bart was an orphan and that Champagne was like the brother he never had. In late summer 2003, Bart started joking to Champagne and Brashear about wanting his family killed, as if to gauge their reactions. In September 2003, Bart asked him to shoot his family when they returned from some function that Bart would invent to get his family out of the house. The matter was discussed several times, and Champagne testified that he eventually confronted Bart publicly, hoping that “making a scene” would get Bart to leave him alone. Shortly thereafter, Brashear was invited to move into Bart’s townhome.

Champagne told the jury that he agreed to be the getaway driver when Bart told him that he was already guilty of conspiracy to commit the crime. Bart had told his parents that he would be graduating from Sam Houston in December 2003; the celebration would provide the perfect subterfuge to get the family out of the house. Champagne detailed for the jury an argument that Bart had with his father the day before the murders were first to occur. Kent Whitaker told Bart that he could not make it to dinner the following night, which temporarily foiled the plan.

On the day of the murders, the trio started for Sugar Land around 4 p.m. Bart and Brashear departed in the Bart’s Yukon several minutes before Champagne. Their gated community had a security camera at the front gate, and Bart had warned them that the police could retrieve the videotape. Champagne knew that the Whitaker family would be eating at the Pappadeaux restaurant in Stafford; he parked in the back of the parking lot with a view of the family’s Chevrolet Trailblazer, waiting for them to emerge.

Champagne followed the Whitakers’ Trailblazer as it left the restaurant and until they pulled into their driveway. Following Bart’s instructions, Champagne parked his vehicle in front of the house directly behind the Whitaker’s home. Shortly thereafter, Brashear appeared, jumping into the vehicle’s back seat. As they drove out of the neighborhood Brashear detailed the murders to Champagne. Brashear stated that Kevin smiled at him as he pointed the Glock at his chest and fired. Brashear had in his possession Bart’s cellular phone, which he had accidentally removed from the Yukon, and a wad of cash that Bart had told him Kent kept in the master bedroom closet. After changing clothes and dumping the evidence in Lake Conroe, the pair went drinking, using Kent’s money to pay their bar tab.

Champagne finally detailed a chilling conversation he had with Bart Whitaker in February 2004 as the pair dined in a Woodlands restaurant. Champagne told the jury that Bart wanted to meet with him to find out what Champagne had told police investigators. During the conversation Whitaker said, “The job wasn’t finished,” and started to discuss killing his father, Kent.

Will Anthony, Justin Peters, and Adam Hipp each testified about their participation in the prior conspiracies to kill the Whitaker family. It was noted that Bart had sought relationships when each faced periods of turmoil in their lives. Peters had lost a girlfriend in a traffic accident, and Hipp and Anthony were struggling with grades and eventually were expelled from their respective schools. Each, in retrospect, could see how Bart recognized and exploited their personal weaknesses.

Bart Whitaker was found guilty of capital murder in 11⁄2 hours.

The punishment phase

During the punishment phase, Kent and Patricia Whitaker’s brother, Bo Bartlett, each pleaded with the jury to spare Bart’s life. Their explanation for Bart’s behavior was that the family’s expectations had placed too much pressure on him and that perhaps he had been given too much too soon. This did not resonate well with the mostly working-class jurors.

In the end Bart took the stand in a final attempt to scheme his way out of the death penalty. He attempted to contradict the State’s claim that money was his motivation for wanting his family killed. Bart testified that he had developed an irrational hatred of his family because he could never fulfill their high expectations of him. Of course, Bart found God while in Mexico, and thus was an entirely new person, even participating in jail bible study.

Ultimately, Fred Felcman’s cross-examination placed Bart on death row. While Bart’s attorney, Randy McDonald, led Bart through most of the direct examination. Fred removed Bart from his comfort zone and often slammed his hand on the jury rail, stopping Bart’s testimony in mid-sentence when he became non-responsive. Fred confronted Bart several times regarding his behavior during the police investigation and subsequent trial. When trapped, Bart resorted to blaming his attorneys or co-conspirators, or he simply stated that he had changed after his religious conversion and was now an entirely different person. Fred questioned Bart about the Christmas card, but Bart indicated that it was his sincere attempt to wish Fred a merry Christmas and stated that he had no reason to hate Fred, as he knew he was just doing his job. Fred finished the evisceration by making Whitaker agree that had no reason to hate his family but he killed them anyway.

After 10 hours of deliberation, the jury, many with tears in their eyes as they filed into the jury box, sentenced Bart Whitaker to die for the murders of Kevin and Patricia Whitaker. Bart accepted the verdict with no emotion. Kent flinched when the verdict was read but accepted the jury’s decision with grace. Kent later told the local media that the verdict was not what he wished for but that the “Lord was sovereign and that his will had been done.” Kent then went home, a true victim, as the last remaining member of his immediate family was removed from the Fort Bend County Courthouse to be transferred to death row.