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Texas University Student's Sinister Plot Leads to Family's Deadly 2003 Shooting
An evening filled with celebration turned deadly when a mother, father, and two sons were shot upon returning to their Sugar Land, Texas residence.
An international manhunt was initiated after a married couple and their sons were brutally shot in their suburban Texas home.
On the evening of December 10, 2003, parents Kent and Tricia Whitaker joined their sons, 19-year-old Kevin and 23-year-old Bart Whitaker, out to dinner. The clan celebrated Bart’s upcoming graduation from the Sam Houston State University in Texas, gifting the eldest son a $4,000 Rolex watch.
Within an hour, two of them would be dead, as detailed in Final Moments, airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.
A Shooting in Sugar Land, Texas
The family of four had just returned to their Sugar Land, Texas, home — about 20 miles southwest of Houston — in what next-door neighbor Brandon Stanley would call a “gruesome” crime.
“I was there when they died,” Stanley told Final Moments. “That was real, and I can’t necessarily make sense of what I saw.”
Stanley, who’d made the initial call to 9-1-1, described sitting at his computer when hearing shots ring out from the Whitaker home. Stanley ran over, but before he could make it to the entrance, he found Kent Whitaker on his back, lying on the ground near the porch after sustaining a gunshot wound to the chest.
Stanley’s father rendered aid, and Kent survived the shooting.
However, inside the home, Bart Whitaker also placed a call to 9-1-1, explaining he’d been shot in the shoulder before chasing the unknown attacker away. Inside, the youngest, Kevin Whitaker, lay dead, while Tricia Whitaker succumbed to her shooting injuries while en route to a Houston-area hospital via helicopter, according to Sgt. Matt Levan of the Sugar Land Police Department.
For residents in the close-knit community, now shaken by the crimes, the double homicide didn’t make sense.
“The Whitaker family was a pillar in the community,” said family friend John Flores, who’d also attended school alongside Kevin. “They loved to experience life as a family.”
“Life was good,” Stanley added. “That was my general vibe.”
Police investigate the quadruple shooting
With Kent receiving treatment in the I.C.U. and Bart hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, police embarked on their murder investigation. Fearing an armed killer was on the loose, law enforcement put out an alert to warn residents and hit the ground running to catch who was responsible for the deaths of Tricia and Kevin Whitaker.
At first, they wondered if it was a home invasion gone terribly wrong, but the crime scene didn’t fit. For starters, electronics, televisions, and other valuable items were left in their place. Though drawers had been pulled out, they were pulled out evenly and not haphazardly, which wasn’t what police typically saw inside ransacked homes.
“Things didn’t add up exactly to being some type of burglary,” Sgt. Levan told Final Moments.
At the crime scene, authorities discovered the gun-turned-murder-weapon in the kitchen, something Levan said he found “odd.” In one of the upstairs bedrooms, detectives also found the gun safe from which the murder weapon had been pried.
“Whoever did this knew what to look for and knew what was in the safe,” said Ford Bend County Prosecutor Fred Felcman.
Three days after the purported ambush, Bart was released from the hospital and joined police back at the crime scene, per video recorded by police and published in Final Moments. Bart maintained that it was dark at the time of the shooting and that he didn’t see the shooter before chasing him out the back door.
Investigators, however, were skeptical of Bart’s statements.
“He was very vague about things you’d think he’d remember,” said Felcman.
A Question of Motive
Police were stumped about who would otherwise want to target the Whitaker family, especially since acquaintances and loved ones all maintained the family was “nothing but perfect,” according to Sgt. Levan. However, suspicions began to fall at Bart’s feet when detectives looked into his background at Sam Houston State University.
Bart, it transpired, was not to be graduating, as he’d posed to his family. In fact, he faked going to school for the previous three years and was only enrolled as a freshman with a 1.4 G.P.A., according to Levan.
“We had a story that he was giving us that wasn’t matching reality,” Levan said, adding that it seemed “coincidental” that the shooting took place after the family returned from celebrating Bart’s nonexistent graduation.
Following the funeral for Kevin and Tricia, and after Kent Whitaker’s release from this hospital, police looked into Bart’s background, finding a 2001 report filed with the Waco Police Department. According to Levan, a female stated that Bart discussed killing his father.
Officers visited Bart’s parents at the time, but they allegedly weren’t concerned with what they perceived to be empty threats.
Meanwhile, Bart and Kent moved back into the Sugar Land residence, where their loved ones were killed, as detectives continued to search for a killer.
“This is not the All-American family that everybody might think they are,” Levan told Final Moments.
Then, one week after the double homicide — and with suspicions continuing to fall on son Bart Whitaker — one of Bart’s former roommates, Adam Hipp, entered the police department. Hipp claimed he’d briefly roomed with Bart at school and that Bart made mention of having his family murdered in 2001 as a means to inherit the family’s assets, which included the upscale Sugar Land home and life insurance policies to the tune of about $1 million.
Hipp stated that Bart even offered him a cut of the money, if Hipp agreed to pull the trigger.
“The detective had Mr. Hipp actually draw a map that showed where he was supposed to stand inside the house, and he would shoot the family members as they walked in,” Sgt. Levan told Final Moments. “And that’s exactly what happened on December 10, 2003.”
An informant leads police to more suspects
Hipp’s information wasn’t enough to press charges against Bart Whitaker. However, Hipp agreed to let authorities record his phone calls with the prime suspect. Bart didn’t admit involvement in the shooting, but the name of a former roommate, Chris Brashear, was mentioned in conversation.
Police questioned Brashear, as video-recorded and published in Final Moments, but Brashear said he was at Hooters on the night of the murders. With him was another roommate, Steve Champagne, along with Champagne’s girlfriend.
Police then zeroed in on Champagne, a U.S. Marine who sat down with authorities.
“I think his conscience finally got to him,” said Sgt. Levan.
Little by little, Champagne, who’d initially denied knowing anything about the shooting, began to change his story. Eventually, he admitted to parking one to two blocks from the crime scene, accusing Brashear of going to the Whitaker home, waiting inside, and then pulling the trigger.
To corroborate his story, Champagne told detectives they could find a bag in Lake Conroe, which would be filled with physical evidence, including two-way radios, water bottles, and ammunition.
Divers found the bag, which also contained Brashear’s D.N.A. on the water bottle, the tool used to pry the gun safe, and a cell phone used during the commission of the crime.
Champagne and Brashear both said Bart Whitaker ordered the hit, but when police went to arrest him, Bart was nowhere to be found.
An international manhunt ensues
Champagne and Brashear were each charged with first-degree murder for the deaths of Tricia and Kevin Whitaker, and it seemed Bart was on the run. His Chevrolet Tahoe was discovered abandoned at a Houston apartment complex, but months went by without any solid lead about his whereabouts.
Authorities believed he’d taken cash from his Sugar Land home to help him on the lam.
“People don’t run when they’re innocent,” Prosecutor Felcman told Final Moments. “Flight is a very good indication of guilt.”
Crime Stoppers issued a $10,000 reward for information leading to Bart’s arrest. Then, 18 months after the murders, a man named Rudy Rios called in and said that more than a year earlier, Bart paid him $3,000 to assume Rios’ identity and head to Mexico.
“Bart Whitaker shacks up with a female and begins a relationship with her,” said Sgt. Levan.
Mexican officials aided U.S. officials in tracking Bart’s whereabouts, and on September 24, 2005, he was extradited to the States to face prosecution.
Bart Whitaker faces the death penalty
Bart Whitaker was charged with capital murder, and his trial began on March 3, 2007. In the galleys, his father, shooting victim Kent Whitaker, publicly argued for his son’s life and pleaded to have the death penalty taken off the table.
Based largely on Steve Champagne’s testimony, prosecutors accused Bart of being the “mastermind” and staging his own shooting and the shootings of his family members with greed being the underlying motive.
After six days of trial and one and a half hours of deliberations, a jury found Bart guilty of murder.
Next came the penalty phase, where the jury would decide on life or death for the convicted man.
“When Bart Whitaker was testifying, I actually had to admit that he had no reason to hate his parents,” Felcman told Final Moments. “But he did it anyway.”
In the court, parties showed what would have been some of the family’s final moments, as captured in several photographs taken during and after the celebratory dinner. In one photo, Bart and his brother, Kevin, smiled, as Bart gave the middle finger.
It was a disturbing detail, given that he’d already planned his relatives’ murders.
After 10 hours of deliberations, the jury sentenced Bart to death. Meanwhile, Brashear and Champagne cooperated with prosecutors, and in exchange, Brashear was handed a life sentence, and Champagne was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.
“It’s brought me to the conclusion that evil is real; very tangible, and it has a long plan behind it,” said neighbor Brandon Stanley. “I truly think Bart was evil.”
Bart was scheduled to die on February 22, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. However, just 30 minutes before his planned execution, Gov. Greg Abbott commuted his sentence, partly due to Kent Whitaker’s outspoken opposition to the death penalty.
Bart will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Watch all-new episodes of Final Moments, airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.