Jimmy had questions that the Putnam County Sheriff's Department declined to answer: Did Brandi give Jessie the drugs that killed him? Why was Jessie left alone in Jack's house? Could he have been saved if somebody had sought medical help for him?
The grieving father unfolded a recent newspaper clipping about a West Virginia woman convicted of murder after she shared heroin with a man who overdosed. Whoever gave Jessie the drugs should be held responsible -- even if it was the Powerball winner's granddaughter, Jimmy says.
West Virginians Jack and Jewell Whittaker won a $314 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas Day 2002.
(John Sommers - Reuters)
April Witt will discuss her story on Monday, January 31 at 1 p.m. ET.
"I run a business over here and barely keep my head above water paying all these taxes," he says. "These taxes help pay the salary of employees like prosecutors and law enforcement people. All I'm asking here is, I want my money's worth. You go and investigate this over here like it was anybody else's son or daughter."
In a twist that made Jimmy wonder about the heart of man, police arrested J.C. Shaver, Dustin Campbell, 20, and a third young man for allegedly robbing Jack's house while Jessie was lying there dead. According to police, Jack's security system videotaped someone -- deputies didn't reveal who -- letting Shaver and Campbell into the house. Cameras recorded Shaver and Campbell leaving Jack's house with what police said were armloads of stolen goods. Cameras even recorded Campbell and a third young man returning hours later, entering the house through the back door and helping themselves to more, police said. All the time, police said, Jessie was dead on an upstairs bed.
Stunned, Jimmy talked to one of the detectives on the case, Sgt. Lisa Arthur. "Here's the strange thing," Jimmy says. "She spent 15 minutes talking to me about how important it was to get back Mr. Whittaker's stolen property. Okay. The guy's worth $113 million, and they are worried about his property. She spent 15 minutes telling me how they hunted them down and caught them, and they had them on videotape."
"I told Lisa, 'You need to find out who left a dead body laying there!'"
In separate interviews, Shaver and Campbell insist it was Brandi who invited them to the house and ushered them in the door. Both say they didn't steal anything. Shaver says he had Brandi's permission to take clothing from the house.
"Brandi was sucking on a crack pipe" when she opened the door, Campbell says. She skittered around the house, grabbing armloads of clothes and throwing them in her car, Shaver says. "She acted really, really paranoid. She was looking out the windows."
Shaver and Campbell followed Brandi upstairs to a bedroom and saw Jessie lying face down on the bed, both said. "I went to wake him," Shaver says. "That's when she told me to leave him alone, he hadn't slept in a couple of days." Campbell says he thought Jessie was just "nodded out" after too much partying -- not dead or in trouble.
Then Brandi left Shaver and Campbell alone in the house with Jessie, Shaver says. "I think it was all a setup" Shaver says. "I think it was all to put it on our backs. That's why she didn't want us to wake him up, because she knew he wasn't going to wake up."
The sheriff's department declined to release the full security tapes that could confirm or refute the men's accounts. Chief Deputy J.W. Dailey says his department is not investigating Jessie's death because there is no mystery to unravel. "I don't know any drug overdose that isn't self-inflicted," Dailey says. Holding anyone legally responsible for giving Jessie the lethal drugs would be akin to Adam taking the apple from Eve then declaring, "Now I'm going to sue you, Eve!" Dailey says. "It doesn't make sense to me."
The Putnam County prosecutor's office subsequently acknowledged that the detectives assigned to this case and others involving Jack -- including the Navigator break-in and the robbery at the Fraziers Bottom house -- also worked off-duty providing private security for the Powerball millionaire's family. Those detectives, Lisa Arthur and Shawn Johnson, did not respond to requests for interviews.
State law allows off-duty deputies to provide private security but says they shall not engage in work that would conflict with their official duties or impair their independence or judgment. Dailey says the department has not been influenced by the fact that several deputies have worked for Jack Whittaker.
"They are compromised," argues Jimmy, who lies awake nights wondering what he could have done to save his son.
"Maybe I should have moved away," he says. "I just want to say this, and I'm not trying to be bitter, but if Jack Whittaker had never won the Powerball and my son had never hooked up with Jack's granddaughter, Brandi, he'd be alive."
When Brandi came to the door, she looked nothing like the girl whose Paw-Paw won the single largest undivided lottery jackpot in history. That girl had a proud, beaming face framed with fluffy light-blonde hair. This Brandi was disheveled. Her baggy clothes hung on her. Her face was sunken. The Hurricane townhouse where she sometimes stayed was in spectacular disarray: furniture askew, drawers pulled out, walls defaced with graffiti.
"Talk to my lawyer!" Brandi barked at a Washington Post Magazine reporter who knocked on her door in late November. Brandi slammed the door without waiting for a reply. "Go awayyyy!" she shrieked from inside the townhouse. "I'm calling the cops."
It was a tough time for the whole family. Jack and Jewell had become estranged. They tried reconciling, Melissa Harris says, and spent Thanksgiving together. But a few days later, on November 30, Jack ran his Hummer into a concrete median, near Beckley, state police said. He was charged with driving under the influence and failure to submit to a Breathalyzer. Troopers found $117,000 in Jack's Hummer and a pistol tucked in one of his boots. "Jewell changed the locks on him," Harris says.
On December 9, Jack informed the Putnam County Sheriff's Department that Brandi was missing.
Brandi had, of late, been coming to Jack's construction office to collect a daily check, instead of the larger sums of cash she'd been accustomed to, an office worker says. Suddenly, Brandi stopped showing up for her money.
One of her buddies, Brandon Crosier, told police he'd last seen Brandi at his family home, a rundown property littered with junked vehicles. Brandon claimed that he had fallen asleep and awakened to find Brandi gone, police said. But the car she'd been driving was still parked outside.
"We have no leads," Chief Deputy Dailey told reporters. Police said Brandi had several expensive cars, and all of them were accounted for. That set people clucking. Who in their right mind, they asked, would give a 17-year-old all those cars?
Jewell, despairing over Brandi's disappearance, blamed the Powerball jackpot for destroying her family. "I wish I would have torn the ticket up," she told a Charleston newspaper reporter.
On Monday, December 20, almost two years after Jack bought the winning Powerball ticket, police found Brandi on the Crosier property. She was dead. Her body had been wrapped in a plastic tarp and dumped behind a junked van in a place called Scary Creek.
Steve Crosier, Brandon's father, said he believed that Brandi had overdosed and that his son had "freaked out." Crosier, whose own daughter died of cancer that very week, blamed himself. He lamented that he'd been an absentee father to Brandon during his daughter's long illness.
At Brandi's Christmas Eve funeral, Jack and Jewell sat side by side in a packed funeral home listening to the song "Nobody Knows" by Nelly, their granddaughter's favorite rapper: "Nobody told me nothing that would help me to ease my pain . . . I've been searching for something, for someone to help me find my way." White doves were released at her graveside.
Weeks after the funeral, Brandi's family and the state police were still awaiting the results of a toxicology report. But Jack had already reached some conclusions. He didn't blame the Powerball for his family's sorrows. He didn't blame himself. "All of the problems I have had are because of my granddaughter's drug-using friends," he angrily told an Associated Press reporter. "I'm going to find them and put them in jail.
"She was my world, you understand that?"
Coming up on this past Christmas, West Virginians heading to grandma's house stopped to gas up and buy Powerball tickets, even though the jackpot was a measly $28 million.
Over at the C&L Super Serve, Brenda-the-biscuit-lady got a raise. She now makes $6.50 an hour serving breakfast and lunch from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. She has to get up an hour earlier than she used to because she has such a long commute in her Jeep.
After she sold her Powerball house, Brenda, now 41, moved way out into the country. She doesn't have neighbors. That suits her fine. Her new house is half the size of the old one. She likes it better. She doesn't have a phone; she doesn't want one.
Brenda is warier now that she knows how mean some folks can be, but she won't let herself be bitter. She's real sorry for the cowboy-man's troubles, but she can't be sad, leastways not for long. Some gifts do last a lifetime.
Brenda beams at a construction worker during a recent lunch rush. The fellow looks tired. He needs Brenda-the-biscuit-lady to dish out a little of her special love.
Brenda's shirt is covered with food stains. Her hair is unruly from her sticking her head in that biscuit oven all morning. Her smile is as warm and sustaining as the macaroni and cheese she spoons into a foil container.
"You want a roll with that, baby?"
April Witt is a staff writer for the Magazine. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.