Denise Webber wipes her eyes as details of the murder of her daughter, Rachel Rose Burkheimer, are explained during opening statements Monday in the trial of John Alan Whitaker at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett.

Denise Webber wipes her eyes as details of the murder of her daughter, Rachel Rose Burkheimer, are explained during opening statements Monday in the trial of John Alan Whitaker at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett.

Trial begins in brutal 2002 homicide

EVERETT — Their girl would have turned 32 this year.

Maybe she would have been a mom by now or found a career. There certainly would have been more hugs, lots of to-do lists and probably more heart-to-heart talks about the future.

Nearly 14 years have passed since their girl, Rachel Rose Burkheimer, was beaten, stuffed in a duffle bag, then forced to kneel in a makeshift grave in the Cascade foothills and shot to death. She was 18.

The passage of time hasn’t made those details any easier to hear. Burkheimer’s mom, Denise Webber, dabbed at tears Monday morning not long after a Snohomish County jury was told how Burkheimer spent her last hours.

The teen was forced to disrobe, hand over her jewelry and was ordered face down in the dirt, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Julie Mohr said. She begged for mercy. Burkheimer was shot multiple times by her jealous ex-boyfriend, John “Diggy” Anderson.

Monday marked the first day of testimony in the retrial of one of the several young men implicated in the 2002 robbery, kidnapping and killing.

John Alan Whitaker, 35, is accused of assaulting Burkheimer, helping stuff her in the duffle bag, digging her grave, robbing her of her jewelry and trying to cover up the crime.

“Evidence will show that Whitaker took part in the killing. He did not shoot Rachel, but he participated in the killing from beginning to end,” Mohr said.

Whitaker was convicted of aggravated murder in 2004 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. However, the state Court of Appeals overturned the jury’s verdict in 2013, citing case law decided since the conviction.

The courtroom in Whitaker’s 2004 trial was temporarily closed to spectators while six prospective jurors were individually questioned about their fitness to hear evidence in the case. Whitaker’s life sentence was reversed.

His family wiped at tears Monday, hopeful that a new trial could bring their son home.

Whitaker’s new attorney told jurors that his client was not part of any conspiracy to harm or kill Burkheimer. There will be no evidence that Whitaker had any intention to cause Burkheimer’s death, Seattle attorney Peter Offenbecher said.

“None of these fellows, except Anderson, intended Ms. Burkheimer to die,” Offenbecher said.

On the contrary, his client attempted to get Burkheimer away from Anderson, the defense attorney said. FBI agents who interviewed Whitaker after his arrest in California will testify that Whitaker told them he “was the only one in the group that had told Anderson to let Rachel Burkheimer go,” Offenbecher said.

Whitaker and the others were acting under the direction of Anderson, who had become a “psychopathic maniac,” the defense attorney said. Anderson punched Whitaker and at least one other man before turning his rage on Burkheimer, Offenbecher said. He was armed with a gun and out of control.

If Anderson had not snapped, Burkheimer would be alive today, Offenbecher said.

Prosecutors countered that Whitaker was part of a plot to get rid of Burkheimer because his group, which called itself the “Northwest Mafia,” saw her as a liability.

The group specialized in home-invasion robberies of Snohomish County drug dealers and adopted nicknames in an homage to the fictional thugs in Quentin Tarantino’s violent crime thriller “Reservoir Dogs.”

They suspected that Burkheimer was setting them up for a rival group. Anderson decided that she needed to die. He hatched a plan to lure her to a south Everett duplex.

Whitaker was not an unwilling participant in the killing, Mohr said. He kicked Burkheimer and helped kidnap her. He dug her grave, ripped duct tape from her hair and stole her jewelry. He also directed others to help clean up after the crime.

“John Whitaker did not pull the trigger, but he is just as guilty as the person who did,” Mohr told jurors.

Most of the eight involved in the slaying cut deals, exchanging testimony against co-defendants in exchange for lighter punishment. Several of those men are expected to testify during Whitaker’s trial. Anderson was convicted of aggravated murder. He is serving a life sentence.

Burkheimer’s family was forced to sit through three separate murder trials in the years following the murder.

Bill Burkheimer was the prosecution’s first witness Monday. He spoke about the frantic search for his daughter when she didn’t return home. They called her friends, printed out fliers and called police, only to be told to wait three more days to report her missing.

The Marysville man’s composure slipped for a moment, and he choked back tears at the sight of his daughter’s photograph.

It’s been 13 years and nine months since he last saw her alive. He had peeked into her bedroom before hurrying off to work that day. His girl was sleeping.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

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