Family of Splendora boy set on fire in ’98 wants case reopened
Family of Splendora boy set on fire in ’98 wants case reopened
Family still awaiting justice
Shortly before dying at 20, victim set on fire as a child in ’98 revealed possible motive; relatives want case reopened
, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Published 05:30 a.m., Saturday, May 14, 2011
For Colleen Middleton and her son Robert, normal ended on his 8th birthday in 1998. In the early evening of June 28, as he made his way to a friend’s house along a well-worn trail, Robert was confronted by the full force of evil.
All would change, every subsequent breath and moment — his world spun sideways by an act few could comprehend. The splash to the face, the sudden spark, smoke and pain and flames and screams rising from a hard-packed patch of dirt in the Montgomery County village of Splendora, a name cruelly at odds with the assault that in time would claim Robert’s life as he touched the cusp of manhood.
Time doesn’t fade the memory of that gasoline-soaked attack, allegedly at the hands of a 13-year-old neighbor. But fortunately for a mother, neither does it erase what came before, eight years of typical boyhood in a small Texas town where bad things rarely involved children.
“He was such a nice kid, so happy-go-lucky, always smiling,” Colleen said. “I guess everybody says that about their kids. But he was sweet and kind-hearted and very sensitive. I remember when he was 5 and he said to me that something I said had hurt his feelings. I had this little 5-year-old willing to talk about his feelings.”
The talent of surgeons, the determination of specialists, the devotion of family, all of it gave Robert time, just not enough of it. He died on April 29 of cancer, a specific type of cancer associated with burns. The apparently murderous intent of his assailant was fulfilled belatedly by an illness diagnosed in April 2010, which moved more rapidly than doctors expected and claimed Robert two months before his 21st birthday.
The motive, however, was never fully established.
Charges dropped in 2000
Robert’s assault received intense media coverage, and about a week later the teenage neighbor, Don Willburn Collins, was arrested and charged with the crime.
At first there was a claim of retaliation for Robert confronting Collins over stolen fireworks. There also were reports that Robert may have witnessed Collins’ involvement in a sexual assault on another younger boy.
The allegations were never explored in court. Montgomery County prosecutors dropped charges in 2000, saying publicly they were “suspending” the case until Robert was healthier and could more comfortably testify. But charges were never refiled and Colleen insists she was never told why. Her calls to the lawyer handling the prosecution were neither taken nor returned.
Eleven years later, approaching death, Robert disclosed for the first time what he believed the motive for the attack to be. Two weeks earlier on the same trail where he was burned, Collins had sexually assaulted him, he said. Robert had always claimed Collins was his attacker, but the motive was thought to be related to his witnessing Collins assault another boy.
In a deposition taken by an attorney for the family, Craig Sico, Robert described how he was sexually assaulted.
“He pulled my clothes down and starting raping me,” Robert said in the taped deposition.
Sico asked Robert if Collins had done that before.
“He did it to one of his cousins all the time,” Robert replied.
Robert had confided to his sister but never his parents. He was embarrassed, Sico said, and even many years later did not want to answer questions about it with his mother in the room.
Mother feels duped
Collins is currently in a Texas prison. He has been convicted in an unrelated sexual assault and also has convictions for theft, resisting arrest and for repeatedly failing to register as a sex offender.
The family, Sico and another family attorney, Ken Bigham, want Montgomery County prosecutors to reopen the case they halted in 2000.
“I want them to do everything they can by law,” Colleen said. “I want (Robert) to be treated fairly. I don’t think they did everything they possibly could to get justice for him when he was alive.”
Neither the Montgomery County district attorney nor the county attorney, who has responsibility over juvenile cases, returned calls from the Houston Chronicle.
Colleen acknowledges that she agreed in 2000 to postpone the case. She said the assistant county attorney who was handling it told her that investigators needed more time to follow leads that an adult also had been present during the assault. Robert had told authorities and his family that he heard an adult voice, though he only saw Collins.
Sico, a Corpus Christi lawyer who represents the Middletons in a civil suit against Collins, said he recently received an email from Montgomery County prosecutors saying the evidence contained “too many contradictions” and that it was “not prosecutable.” Other than that, Sico said he has received no details why the matter cannot be pursued.
Colleen believes she was duped into agreeing to “temporarily” halting the prosecution. She said she never received an explanation that there were problems with evidence. She did not dwell on it because she was occupied with Robert, who suffered burns over 99 percent of his body and was in and out of Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston for years.
No prosecutor interview
In time, Robert went back to school and lived as normal a life as possible. Though legally blind, hard of hearing and significantly disfigured, he did not dwell on his problems and was looking forward to college, his mother said.
One thing always bothered Colleen, though. During all those years, no prosecutor ever came to visit Robert to discuss the event, she said. Now that opportunity is gone. Sico hopes to someday get Collins on the stand.
Sico claims the deposition could be used in a criminal prosecution, as a dying declaration if nothing else. And the statute of limitations should not apply, he said, because there is no limit to murder or attempted murder.
“We have offered for free our resources to help in this and have gotten no return phone call,” said Sico, who was raised in Montgomery County. “We don’t want to criticize (prosecutors). We’d like to see them do this job. I sat looking and talking with Robert before he died. He asked me if I would stick with this.”
He was not vengeful
Before Robert got sick, he and his parents moved to Missouri for a cooler climate. He could not sweat, so the Texas heat was a problem for him, his mother said. He still retained a sunny disposition, even if the warm sun was too much to bear. She said the attack did not make him bitter or vengeful.
“It’s really strange — it didn’t,” she said. “He was still a happy-go-lucky guy who cared about other people. He was still the same Robert.”