Montgomery County attorney David Walker had been fretting about a legal challenge he could soon face in court: How would he explain his decision last month to file murder charges against Don Collins, 27, for a crime he allegedly committed when he was 13?

Why did authorities wait so long to charge Collins in connection with the death of Robbie Middleton, who the suspect allegedly torched with gasoline in 1998?

Walker now thinks he has found a solution - charging Collins with a different crime. He has seized upon the deathbed declaration that Middleton, Collins' neighbor, made shortly before he died last year.

In the 27-minute videotaped statement, Middleton for the first time publicly accuses Collins with sexually assaulting him. He states this happened two weeks before Collins accosted him as he walked down a wooded trail on his eighth birthday near Splendora, doused him in gasoline, tied him to a tree and set him ablaze.

Middleton's death last year has been declared a homicide. Medical experts said it was caused by a cancer that comes only after someone has endured multiple, painful skin grafts for third-degree burns.

Public outcry

Walker said the belated outcry about the sexual assault provides the motivation behind Collins allegedly torching Middleton.

"It was done to prevent Middleton from talking," Walker said. "It provides the bridge that we needed for the delay, rather than saying we didn't have sufficient staffing or something else."

So Walker has dismissed the murder petition he had filed against Collins seeking to have his case transferred from juvenile to district court and plans to refile it as a felony murder. This charge requires the murder to have occurred in conjunction with the commission of another offense - in this case the alleged sexual assault.

Mother supports move

Middleton's mother, Colleen, who has been pushing for justice for her son, was told about the murder petition being dismissed again as it was once years ago, but does not feel her son's case is being neglected as it was then.

"Our lawyers see this is a strategic move, one that is moving in the right direction," she said.

She said her son had never felt comfortable about telling her of the sexual assault, but had revealed it to his older sister two years before the videotape made it public.

In addition, she noted that three years after her son was set on fire that Collins, at age 16, was convicted of sexually assaulting another 8-year-old boy who also happened to be named Robert.

Her attorney, Craig Sico, supported the prosecution's efforts. He helped the family win a $150 billion wrongful death lawsuit against Collins last year, not expecting to collect a dime but draw attention to the cold case.

Collins, who was released from prison Sept. 5 after serving time for failing to register as a sex offender, could not be reached for comment.

 

cindy.horswell@chron.com