Prosecutors refile charges in Montgomery County boy's 1998 burning
Updated 1:31 am, Tuesday, September 17, 2013
The Montgomery County boy - doused in gasoline and turned into a human torch on his 8th birthday - was so severely disfigured in 1998 that those who gazed upon him often cringed.
But over the next dozen years Robert Middleton maintained a positive attitude, even while enduring 100 painful surgeries, until multiple skin grafts caused a cancer that in 2011 claimed his life.
Although Middleton died before he could see anybody punished for what was done to him, his parents may now finally see someone brought to justice.
After countless stops and starts, prosecutors Monday refiled a murder case against 28-year-old Don Wilburn Collins, who was age 13 when Middleton was set ablaze.
"We have located previously unknown witnesses and developed a considerable amount of new information regarding the heinous attack on Robert Middleton," said Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright, who last year was elected to his first term and assumed office Jan. 1.
At his request, sheriff's investigators conducted a seven-month probe into this cold case that unearthed boxfuls of new information covering more than 50,000 pages. Lambright said this information will be combined with Middleton's death-bed revelation that Collins had sexually assaulted him two weeks before he was torched.
"Due to the victim's embarrassment and shame, the sexual assault had not been known when this case was first investigated. We now think Middleton was set on fire to keep him quiet and prevent him from telling," said Lambright.
Prosecutors believe the discovery of the sexual assault - now backed with additional new unspecified evidence uncovered by sheriff's deputies - will provide a reasonable explanation for why the case was never brought to trial earlier while Collins was still a juvenile. Lambright has filed a new motion in juvenile court, seeking "discretionary transfer" of Collins' felony murder case to district court, where he will be tried as an adult.
The previous county attorney, David Walker, withdrew the request he filed to transfer the case just before his tenure ended to allow more investigation in light of the sexual assault allegation.
Collins could not have been charged with felony murder until authorities could prove he was responsible for Middleton's death and that it occurred in conjunction with another offense, which in this case was the sexual assault. He could then be accused of causing Middleton's death because, medical authorities say, his cancer only occured after repeated skin grafts for third-degree burns.
Whoever is appointed to represent Collins, who has claimed to be indigent and homeless, is expected to challenge the constitutionality of the transfer, authorities say.
But before this story, which drew national headlines, can be aired in court, Collins is being held in the San Jacinto County jail on yet another pending felony charge.
Failed to register
For the third time, he is accused of failing to register as a sex offender there for molesting another 8-year-old boy, who was also named Robert. Collins was 16 when convicted of assaulting the second youth - two years after the Middleton incident.
Collins spent four years in juvenile detention and later was twice convicted for failing to register as a sex offender.
27-minute video tape
Middleton's accusation that he was sexually assaulted by Collins is recorded on a 27-minute videotape. It was used by his family to win a $150 billion wrongful death judgment against Collins that the Middleton family never expects to collect.
Middleton's mother, Colleen, wanted to put the spotlight on her son's case that she felt had been neglected and forgotten.
Lambright believes more should have been done sooner: "It was never thoroughly investigated back then. I don't know why. I wish I knew."