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Splendora parents want justice for slain son

Cindy Horswel, Houston Chronicle
Updated 12:43 am, Tuesday, September 17, 2013

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  • Colleen and Bobby Middleton's son Robbie was horribly burned when he was 8. Prosecutors now want to pursue the case. Photo: Brett Coomer / © 2012 Houston Chronicle

    Colleen and Bobby Middleton's son Robbie was horribly burned when he was 8. Prosecutors now want to pursue the case.

    Photo: Brett Coomer

 

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For more than a decade, the Middleton family has been in agony, waiting for the trial of the person they believe drenched their young son Robbie with gasoline and turned him into a human torch.

But to date, no one has been held accountable for the horrific crime that happened on Robbie's 8th birthday in 1998 as he walked along a wooded path near his Splendora home in Montgomery County.

Robbie would suffer through years of painful skin grafts that covered his body and left him severely disfigured. Doctors said the damaged skin eventually caused the skin cancer that killed him last year just before he turned 21.

But now, after completing a cold case review, Montgomery County prosecutors say they have developed sufficient evidence to bring murder charges against Robbie's former next-door neighbor, Don Collins.

However, Montgomery County Attorney David Walker worries it could be too late to prosecute Collins, who is now 27 but was 13 at the time of the attack. Walker has asked the Texas attorney general to review the high-profile case to see if Collins can still be tried as an adult for the crime committed as a juvenile.

Texas law did not permit a 13-year-old to be certified to stand trial as an adult until the year after Robbie was set on fire, Walker said. Since then, he said, the courts have been mute as to whether the law can be applied retroactively.

The Texas attorney general has 180 days to study the issue and cannot comment until reaching a final conclusion, said spokesman Tom Kelley.

Meanwhile, some of the newly found evidence against Collins appears to be not so new. Walker said he was "flabbergasted" to recently learn of the existence of two individuals who had overheard Collins talking about the assault back then. The statements of these individuals, whom Walker declined to name, were discovered in the file by cold case investigators.

"They weren't crystal clear confessions but provided some corroboration of Collins' involvement," Walker said.

Suspect in prison

Collins continues to maintain his innocence. He's locked up in a Texas prison for twice failing to register as a sex offender after being convicted of sexually assaulting another 8-year-old boy three years after Robbie was burned.

Attorneys Craig Sico and William Alexander - who represented the Middletons in their wrongful death lawsuit against Collins last year - are thrilled they may finally have their day in criminal court. The civil jury awarded the family $150 billion in damages - one of the largest judgements in memory.

Collins never hired an attorney and never responded to notices about the civil case.

"Our civil case was symbolic," Sico said. "We don't expect to collect a penny. This was done just to push for justice for Robbie and bring attention to his unique case."

If the attorney general rules Collins cannot be prosecuted as an adult, that could allow someone to commit the "perfect crime" for which there is no punishment, Alexander said.

Middleton's mother, Colleen, is afraid to get her hopes up after so many disappointments.

"Something should have been done long before this," she said.

Complaint dismissed

She feels betrayed by former juvenile prosecutor Bill Pattillo, who she said duped her into supporting the dismissal of the initial complaint against Collins two years after the gasoline assault.

Pattillo did not return phone calls about the case. But Colleen said he had promised the dismissal was "only temporary" to allow her son time to heal and give detectives more time to secretly investigate. But as the months wore on, she said Pattillo refused to return her calls and nothing was ever done.

Walker, who was later elected county attorney and became Pattillo's boss, said he thought the case was dropped because the victim was "horribly traumatized and unable to be fully coherent about who did it."

But Colleen said her son never wavered in his identification of Collins as the first to blind him with a cup of gasoline in his face, though he also reported hearing some other voices. Robbie told investigators that after that first splash of gas he was tied to a tree and drenched in fuel before being set ablaze.

The case has taken some unusual turns recently, including the emergence of a possible new witness, 44-year-old Terry Dale Carnes who is serving four life sentences for two abductions and one child rape. Carnes recently has written several letters from prison to authorities claiming to have been "spying" on Middleton in the woods and saw the incident.

Walker said his detectives have been to the prison to interview Carnes, but he could not discuss the outcome.

Final statement

Also, in a videotaped statement just before Robbie died last year, he revealed for the first time a new possible motive.

Investigators had theorized Robbie was attacked because he'd reported Collins stealing fireworks and had seen him molest another young boy. In Robbie's taped statement, he said he, too, had been sexually assaulted by Collins two weeks before the gasoline attack.

 

cindy.horswell@chron.com