Prosecutors seek justice for burned Texas boy

By Juan A. Lozano

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Heather Richards, right, listens as her mother, Colleen Middleton, left, talks about her brother, Robert, during an interview in Galveston, Texas on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

David J. Phillip, Associated Press

CONROE, Texas — Nearly every part of Robert Middleton's body was etched by fire after he got doused with gasoline and set aflame on his eighth birthday near his Texas home.

That was in 1998, when the boy was covered with third-degree burns. In the years that followed, he endured painful skin grafts, more than 100 surgeries and constant physical therapy.

As he grew into adolescence, Robert seemed to move on with his life. His sister said his mantra was, "The past is the past."

But an important question from the past still lingered: Would his attacker ever be brought to justice? Robert never learned the answer. He died in 2011, shortly before his 21st birthday, from skin cancer that his family believes developed from cells in some of the skin grafts.

Authorities eventually reopened the case and last month filed a murder charge against the suspect who Robert had long accused of burning him.

In a deposition given two weeks before he died, Robert alleged for the first time that the same person had sexually assaulted him two weeks before the attack.

That revelation prompted authorities to reinvestigate Don Willburn Collins, a neighbor who was 13 at the time. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.

But pursuing a murder charge against Collins, who is now 28, might be a difficult task for prosecutors, who would first have to get the case transferred from juvenile court to district court so Collins can be tried as an adult.

If that hurdle is overcome, legal experts say, the greatest challenge would be convincing jurors that Robert's cancer resulted directly from the severe burns. His family and authorities argue that a hormone needed to grow some of the skin grafts helped exacerbate cancerous cells in the skin.

"I know that they have the right person," said Robert's mother, Colleen Middleton.

Collins had been charged right after Robert was burned. But authorities were unable to proceed, in part because Robert was too badly hurt to help investigators.

Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright, whose office filed the new murder charge, said Robert's case was originally given only a "cursory investigation," and Collins was released six months after his arrest.

Collins was later convicted of sexually assaulting a different 8-year-old boy in 2001. After serving his sentence in the juvenile system, he was twice convicted as an adult of failing to register as a sex offender. He is currently jailed in nearby San Jacinto County on a third violation of failing to register and could get up to 10 years.

"I had often wondered: Why has this case lay dormant for 15 years," Lambright said. "I've never been able to give a good answer for that."

In the weeks after her son was burned, Middleton said her initial focus was on finding out who was responsible. But doctors told Middleton her son's health needed to come first.

"So we kind of had to put the whole criminal investigation on (hold) and just (did) it around Robert's schedule, his healing," she said.

Initially, doctors told Middleton that her son would not survive the June 28, 1998, attack near their home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston.

That day, Robert had gone over to a friend's house when Middleton got a call that her son had been burned. She ran outside and found Robert lying on the street, naked. Middleton didn't understand why her son had no clothes on until she realized they had all been burned away.

For the next three years or so, Robert spent more time hospitalized than at home. He was severely disfigured, lost most of his vision and had to use a wheelchair. Eventually he was able to walk again and dress and feed himself and go back to school.

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