They had met 12 years earlier in church on the east coast of Florida, a region that has become known for its pedophilia networks, where runaways drawn to the fun and sun often get caught in a web of drugs and sex. Burkhart was 11, Whitsett 16. When Burkhart finished high school, they moved in together. The relationship troubled Burkhart's mother Susan; Whitsett had been kicked out of the Navy for sexual misconduct. Her son seemed obsessed by his companion. Says Susan Burkhart: "It wasn't a friendship between equals."
It wasn't a monogamous relationship either. At 22, Whitsett was arrested for soliciting sex from a 16-year-old; he got six months' probation. A few months later, as a psychology student at Nova Southeastern University, Whitsett gained entry to a treatment center for teen sex offenders, ostensibly to study whether pedophiles seek out children who are the same age as they were when they were first molested. The research was legitimate, but the liaison he formed with a 15-year-old patient was not. The nude Polaroids, and the sex, landed Whitsett an eight-year prison term.
His prison time was shortened for good behavior, and he would have been released last year. But Florida had changed the rules in 1998 with the Jimmy Ryce Act (named for a nine-year-old Miami boy kidnapped, raped and murdered by a sexual predator). The statute meant that Whitsett could be held and "treated" until he was no longer considered dangerous. That could mean forever. He was placed with 100 or so of Florida's worst convicted and "released" sexual predators in the Martin Treatment Center, a converted county jail, where he awaited a civil hearing to see if he was still a threat.
Two 15-ft. fences laced with razor wire (but without watch towers or sharpshooters) surround the center. Inside, there are no corrections officers, only "therapeutic assistants" who must guard the detainees using pepper spray, not guns. Whitsett roomed in an open "pod" with 15 bunks, not a cell. The staff offers intense psychological treatment but cannot force participation. The Jimmy Ryce Act is so constitutionally murky that Whitsett could not even be called an inmate. He was, rather, a "resident."
And he was quickly getting frustrated. He had tried to be a model prisoner, telling everyone he had found God, that his crimes had been morally reprehensible, that he would never again yield to such urges. The civil hearing was scheduled for the first week of June, but his attorney advised him to delay: another molestation case was making headlines, and leniency wasn't likely.
Meanwhile, Burkhart had married at 20. But once Whitsett was transferred to the treatment center, Burkhart became a regular visitor, and last month he divorced his wife. At the Rainforest Cafe in Sunrise, where Burkhart waited tables, co-workers recall an obsession with Whitsett's case. "He talked about it a lot," says a co-worker, "about how unfair it was that this friend of his had served his time and didn't get out. It wasn't just casual conversation. He could get really angry, with veins popping out of his neck and everything." Unknown to anyone, Burkhart was taking helicopter lessons. He also pulled together $10,098 and two 9-mm handguns and hid a getaway van in a field near the center. He leased a chopper and rented a motel room in sparsely populated Okeechobee, where he stashed fresh clothes, hair dye and porn featuring the type of boys Whitsett favored. He also bought Amtrak tickets to New York City. Meanwhile, Whitsett shipped home his CD player and headphones and gave most of his clothes away to fellow "residents." On Monday, Whitsett got a haircut and, bragging that his attorney had won his freedom, said his goodbyes.
The small two-seat 1993 Robinson V made it cleanly over the center's fence. It was Burkhart's second solo flight. But when Whitsett jumped on, the chopper teetered at its weight threshold, landing in a citrus grove 100 yds. away. "It was just like a movie," said Jenell Atlas, a representative for the Martin County Sheriff's Department, "except for the crash." Says Susan Burkhart: "I don't know if he really thought they would get away with it or whether they were going to die trying." Her son now faces 20 years in prison; Whitsett is looking at 30. They are unlikely to be together behind bars.