Convicted killer accused of writing, selling book while in prison

By Sophia Beausoleil - Reporter

HOUSTON - One of the most high-profile killers in the Houston area is back in the headlines after writing and somehow publishing a book from behind bars. 

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker was convicted of hiring someone to kill his mother and brother in a plot to get inheritance money. 

He was scheduled to be executed last year, but in a rare move, his sentence was commuted by Governor Abbott and is now serving a life sentence in prison. 

Whitaker doesn’t have access to the internet or a computer, so Andy Kahan, the Director of Victim Services and Advocacy at Crime Stoppers was surprised when he found a book online written by Whitaker. 

“It really kind of stunned me because I was searching around like I do every day to see what’s going on in the ‘murderabilia’ industry and discovered that he actually covered a book,” said Kahan.  “Not only did he publish a book, it’s being sold on what I would pretty much agree is a very  reputable site, called Amazon.” 

The book titled, “Who Fears Hell Runs Toward It: On the Christian Metaphysical Foundations of the American Penitentiary and the Missing Image of Resistance in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish," touches on prison life in America. 

“We’re not talking some little flimsily little 'here’s who I am,' this is over a 200-page book that is now being sold on Amazon by a two-time murderer who was originally on death row. That’s troubling,” said Kahan. 

Amazon has a preview of the book online. Kahan said from what he’s read so far, the description doesn’t seem to mention anything in regard to the crimes he’s convicted of, but it doesn’t mean that the book doesn’t touch on it. 

“I tried to read it, but I quite frankly gave up  because it didn’t make a lot of a sense to me, so I had no idea what he was going at other than a what’s happening in prison  I guess,” just to be in layman’s terms, but it really wasn’t clear cut,” said Kahan. 

WHAT IS  ‘MURDERABILIA’? 

Kahan came up with the term to describe tangible items that are produced by high profiled killers and rapists who sell items through open markets and third party dealers. 

“They consist mainly of letters, artwork, autographs, even some mundane items like hair, fingernails, anything that they can produce that gets shipped out that’s put up for sale.,” explained Kahan.  

READ: 'Murderabilia' warning: Crime Stoppers official works to stop violent offenders from profiting

“I had not seen a book, it’s been a long time, I can’t even frankly remember the last time I’ve seen a book on a reputable site,” explained Kahan. “I’ve seen a few books, but there usually self-published on European sites or sites that are not considered to be as mainstream as Amazon. I knew immediately, there’s no way that Bart Whitaker had approval from prison administrators to be selling a book on Amazon.”

THE TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE DEPARTMENT RESPONSE

TDCJ said in a statement:

 “(We are) aware of the book that is purportedly written by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker that is being offered for sale. The independent Office of Inspector General is currently investigating if any laws or TDCJ policy may have been violated.” 

According to the TDCJ, listed below is the excerpt from the offender disciplinary policy that may apply. 

• 15.1 Establishing or operating an unauthorized business - the exchange of offender produced goods or services for financial gain to the offender or to a third party on behalf of the offender if the activity: 

  • Creates a risk to the safety, security, or administration of the agency. 
  • Involves the sale of pornographic depictions that would be denied pursuant to the Agency’s Correspondence Rules if delivered to the Agency. 
  • Involves the sale of a depiction, in any medium, of a reenactment of any offense of conviction of the offender. 
  • Involves the sale of tangible property the value of which is increased by the notoriety of any offense of conviction of the offender.

“The bottom line is any inmate who operates a business, and this is essentially what he’s doing - he’s selling a book - must have approval from prison administrators to operate a business," Kahan said. "I know there was no way in heck that Bart Whitaker either sought permission or would prison officials  grant permission because that would open a huge Pandora’s box for every other inmate." 

HOW DID HE PUBLISH THE BOOK? 

Kahan said that’s under investigation, but stated mail tends to be a common way offenders send out their ‘murderabilia’

“How did he get this material from point A to point B?" said Kahan. "There’s a multitude of ways. I mean people can come in and visit, U.S. mail is usually the primary conduit anyways."

THE FIRST AMENDMENT 

TDCJ said it’s important to note that writing a book isn’t the problem, its if an inmate tries to profit from it.

Under the First Amendment,  an offender can write whatever they want, but the topic changes once people start trying to sell the writings. 

“That’s what’s going to make this an interesting quandary and an interesting issue for prison officials and other officials to determine,” said Kahan in regard to the First Amendment and monitoring what inmates write. 

“Everybody assumes that in this country we have what’s commonly called, ‘Son of Sam’ law,” said Kahan. “It was enacted in 1977 and it was based on a  serial killer named David Berkowitz. Prison officials were fearful he was going to sell his rights for books and movies, and they passed a law prohibiting inmates from selling their rights for books and movies. That was in effect for 23 years and then the United States  Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it restricted free speech.” 

He said whether Whitaker's case will be challenged is something he will be keeping an eye on. 

“It will be fascinating to watch as this proceeds because (of) the book I looked at, it doesn’t appear to be descriptive of the crime that he was convicted of doing, and frankly looking at it, I frankly don’t know what he put out in writing,” said Kahan. “It’s going to be fascinating to watch and see how this is decided and whether Whitaker and his team or publisher’s will challenge whatever ruling comes about  as well."

WHERE THE BOOK IS SOLD 

Kahan said he’s found other ‘Murderabilia’ on Amazon before and believes it may have fallen through the cracks. 

“They’ve had other issues throughout the country that I’ve actually caught them on," said Kahan. "It was a Canadian serial killer that a book was pulled from, and I also believe there was another individual, a sex offender, that had a how-to book, or something on Amazon."

He plans to notify the company.  

“I think Amazon also needs to be made aware of it and I have every intention of doing that," said Kahan. "The bottom line is, they’re giving infamy and immortality to a two-time convicted murderer who richly doesn’t deserve it." 

He said no, it’s not illegal for the book to be there, but he believes it comes down to morals. 

“Do you want a two-time convicted murderer to be profiting from his notoriety that he received by killing people?  If so, you’re going to open the flood gates for everyone else,” said Kahan. “One of the things that we always put into perspective, you know that you really shouldn’t be able to murder people and then profit from your criminal conduct. I believe in capitalism, we believe in free enterprise, but I think you got to draw the line somewhere and when you’re convicted of killing not just one person, but two individuals, you shouldn’t be able to profit from criminal conduct. It’s really that simplistic.”

WHO IS THOMAS “BART” WHITAKER

On Dec. 10,  2003, Patricia Whitaker, 51, and her youngest son, Kevin, 19, were shot and killed by an intruder after coming home from a college celebration for their eldest son, Bart. The father was also injured and Bart claimed he was shot while trying to fight the intruder. 

Police would later learn that Bart Whitaker was not enrolled in college and that Whitaker had recruited someone to kill his family so he could get $1 million in inheritance money. 

He fled and was arrested in Mexico on Sept. 22, 2005.

GRANTED CLEMENCY

On Feb. 6, 2018, Whitaker’s father said he had forgiven his son. On Feb 20, 2018, minutes before he was to receive a lethal injection, Governor Greg Abbott granted him clemency and Whitaker is now serving life behind bars.

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