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.
"There was never normalcy, never," Middleton said.
By his 18th birthday, Robert told his family he was done with surgeries and was happy the way he was.
The family, which was living in Missouri at the time, looked forward to a future in which Robert could one day live by himself, learn to drive and become a wildlife rehabilitator. But in March 2010, Robert was diagnosed with skin cancer. Despite surgeries to remove it, he died in April 2011.
Before Robert's death, the family had hired an attorney to look into his case because Middleton felt authorities "weren't doing all that they could have done."
Two weeks before his death, Robert gave his deposition.
That deposition became part of a lawsuit his family filed against Collins. In December 2011, a jury returned a $150 billion verdict in favor of Robert's family. But the verdict, which was mostly symbolic, and Robert's revelation in his deposition renewed interest in the case.
Lambright, who took office in January, said a six-month investigation gathered new evidence, including claims that Collins told the other 8-year-old he was convicted of sexually assaulting that he would burn the boy just like Robert.
On Oct. 21, Lambright is scheduled to ask that Collins' murder charge be transferred to adult court. If a judge denies the request, that would end the case.
Collins does not have an attorney for the murder charge. But Todd Dillon, his attorney on the failure-to-register charge, said he is worried that information from the murder case might make its way into the trial in San Jacinto County, which is set for February.
"It's important to remember he has never been convicted" in the murder case, Dillon said. "As such, he still has the right of presumption of innocence."
Middleton, who moved with her family from Missouri to Galveston about a month ago to be closer to legal developments in the case, said she wondered at one point if she was selfish to ask that Robert survive.
But Robert told his mother he was happy he lived, and Middleton is grateful she had 13 more years of memories with her son.
"They were good years," Middleton said. "I just remember the good stuff."
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juanlozano70 .
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