MONTGOMERY COUNTY, TX– Fifteen years later, the man accused of burning 8-year-old Robbie Middleton may be held accountable. On June 28, 1998, Robbie Middleton celebrated his eighth birthday, and then he was murdered, though it was more than a decade before he died from his injuries. Robbie was playing at his Splendora home that fateful day when he asked permission to go to a friend’s house on the next street. The neighborhood children had worn a narrow trail through the woods to the next street.
Not long after he started down the trail, 8-year-old Robbie was confronted by 13-year-old Don Collins, who is accused of pouring gasoline on Robbie, and then lighting it. Robbie ran up the trail still on fire and tearing off his clothes. He soon emerged on Crossnow, the street he lived on. Several people saw him and ran to try and help. One grabbed a bucket of water; a passerby stopped and called for an ambulance. Others, including Don Collins and Robbie’s father comforted him. When someone asked who had done this to him, a semi-coherent Robbie responded with the name “Rex,” who was another friend that lived down the street. As they waited for EMS to arrive, Robbie’s father went to Rex’s house, but nobody was home.
Medics soon arrived and requested Life Flight, which flew the severely burned boy to Shriners Burn Center.
Detectives with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene and found a 5-foot diameter scorched patch in the woods, which they believed to be where Robbie was set on fire.
Collins gave a statement implicating another boy he claimed he met on the trail. Collins told investigators he and the other boy went to a nearby barn and found a gallon gas can with matches on top and then went into the woods to burn a tree. When Robbie Middleton came walking down the trail Collins said, the other juvenile instead splashed gas on Robbie and then threw a match into his face.
The detectives also investigated Rex, the neighbor boy Robbie had implicated. However, they determined Rex had been two miles away swimming with at least seven other people at the time of the attack.
On June 30, 1998, Collins gave KHOU-TV, Channel 11 an interview that prompted detectives to take a closer look at Collins.
Not long after, Collins was accused of sexually assaulting another young male in Liberty County, and telling him, “If you don’t keep quiet about this, I will burn you like I did the other boy.”
Robbie Middleton was burned over 99.5 percent of his body. Chances for survival, under those circumstances, were very slim. His only unburned skin was a small patch on the bottom of his foot which provided the skin to grow a culture and slowly replace the skin.
Over the years, Robbie Middleton endured over 200 surgeries. Frequently, scar tissue would build, preventing movement, and necessitating another surgery.
Just before Robbie Middleton’s 21st birthday, he died. An autopsy determined his cause of death was cancer, caused by the deep burns and multiple skin grafts. The manner of death was ruled a homicide.
Not long before he died, Robbie Middleton gave a 17-minute video deposition in which he told of Collins sexually assaulting him 10 days earlier before the gasoline attack. He also implicated Collins as the person who set him on fire.
Collins went first to Texas Youth Commission and was then sent to prison for failing to register as a sex offender. He was released in 2005.
The Middleton family also filed a civil suit against Collins after Robbie’s death. It was filed in Fayette County. The video deposition played a big part in the jury award of a record $150 billion.
After the trial, Robbie Middleton’s mother, Colleen was asked about her son’s reason for the deposition.
“He did it because was afraid that Don (Collins) might attack another child, and that was Robert’s motivation for giving that deposition,” she said.
Colleen Middleton says they did not sue Collins for the money. They knew Collins did not have it. The family says it was about seeking justice.
“I never expect to see a penny of the money, not at all,” she said. “The whole reason we did this today was to send a statement to Montgomery County that they need to criminally prosecute him,” she said.
David Walker looked at the case, but it was never moved forward.
When J.D. Lambright ran for County Attorney, one of his promises was to move the Middleton case forward. He is keeping his promise.
At first, Colleen Middleton said she expected only broken promises. That was until she met with Lambright, and then saw his actions.
Lambright contacted the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Squad and asked them to look into the case. Two detectives spent months locating witnesses. They even located additional sexual assault victims of Collins’.
As the investigation continued, the detectives discovered Collins was in the San Jacinto County Jail awaiting a trial on another Failure to Register as a Sex Offender charge. Lambright moved forward and filed the Felony Murder charge on September 13, 2013. The felony murder was filed because Collins was accused of setting Middleton on fire to cover up another crime – the sexual assault.
Judge Kathleen Hamilton of the 359th District Court then assigned E. Tay Bond to the case as Collins’ court-appointed attorney. Bond visited Collins in the San Jacinto County Jail.
The Cold Case Squad then told Lambright they were delivering his case files. When they appeared in the van with over a dozen banker’s boxes, Lambright thought they were also delivering to others. Before long, he learned that he was the recipient of almost 53,000 pages of documents related to the investigation. Bond received an identical set and had to make room in his 2,500 square foot office. Bond is planning to use another building to begin laying out the documents and reading through them.
When Lambright heard that Collins was not going to trial in San Jacinto County until 2014, he secured a bench warrant to bring Collins to Montgomery County.
Collins was to be picked up on October 18 and appear in court on October 21. That date was set for Judge Hamilton to hear arguments from both Lambright and Bond.
As it now stands, 28-year-old Collins is still under the juvenile courts’ and County Attorney’s jurisdiction, since he was 13 when the crime was committed. The first step will be a hearing to move his case to the District Attorney’s Office, where adult felony cases and prosecuted. Bond says Lambright does not have a leg to stand on, due to laws in effect at the time of the crime.
It was learned on Tuesday that the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office went to San Jacinto County Monday and returned with Collins, placing him in the Montgomery County Jail.
Texas Law states that juvenile suspects must see a judge in a detention hearing within 48-hours of arrest to determine if there is enough cause to hold them for trial.
Judge Hamilton learned what multi-tasking was on Wednesday, as she had a jury out on a failure to change the address of a sex offender deliberating. She also has a juvenile court docket on Wednesday where she sees several juveniles who are being detained and make a determination on their fate.
The juveniles went into court that morning with Judge Hamilton speaking with each of them, including some of their family members. Lasting until almost 11 am she set the detention hearing for Collins until 1 p.m.
At 1 p.m. Collins was brought into the courtroom. Tattoos covered his head and much of his body. Coleen Middleton said she thought he looked like a hardened criminal.
Mr. Peabody with the County Attorney’s Office was presenting the case when approximately 15 minutes into it there was a knock at the door. The jury had reached a decision on the earlier case the Judge was hearing.
Collins was taken back out of the courtroom, and the jury was brought in along with the defendant. Finding the defendant guilty, he was cuffed and removed from the courtroom to face sentencing on Thursday.
Collins was then returned to the courtroom and Peabody continued.
After hearing the information on the charge Judge Hamilton set a $1 million bond on Collins. Tay Bond then told the court there was no way for him to be ready for the transfer hearing next Monday to determine if Collins could be tried as an adult. Due to the number of documents that had to be reviewed, Bond felt it could be 90 to 180 days before he was ready for the hearing.
An agreement was reached to meet next Monday and set a firm date for the transfer hearing. In the meantime, since Collins is still under juvenile authority he must be brought in front of the judge every 10 business days for another detention hearing.
After Collins was removed from the court Colleen Middleton spoke of what it was like going through the process, almost reliving the past. Hearing the documents on the confession, Colleen Middleton said she wished she could speak out on the truthfulness of them. She said the hardest part was to sit there and not say anything. She is determined to see it through, she said, however long it takes. She also expressed how happy she is to see how this is going now. Before she felt nothing was going to happen like her son died feeling he did not matter.
“We are finally going to have closure and it will be over,” she said.
Robbie’s sister Heather Richards said 1999 was the last time she saw Collins when he was at school for two days. She was amazed at all his tattoos.
“He looks like a monster,” Richards said.
Lambright said Collins was in the San Jacinto County Jail facing a third-time charge of Failure to Register as a Sex Offender and was looking at a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in TDCJ.
If they are successful in getting Collins tried and convicted as an adult, he faces five to 99 years in prison.
He said even though the case will be difficult, he credits the Cold Case detectives with locating witnesses, none of who saw the actual act, but who were there, some as children and some as adults. He also said some had died. They have located almost everyone noted in the case in 1998. They are still attempting to locate any other victims of Collins.
Lambright also said Collins’ actions in the San Jacinto County Jail said a lot about him. He has announced he was “tank boss” when he came in, and had assaulted one of the jailers. Collins is also known to have been involved with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang and various other White Supremacy organizations.
Bond said it will take a long time to get ready for a trial and he is not even sure Collins can get a fair trial in Montgomery County, due to community awareness of the case. He may try to get the trial transferred to another county.
Bond said the government has had a two-year head start on him, and he has had the 55,000 pages of documents for about a week. According to Bond, this has been one of the most “document-intensive” cases he ever had.
When asked how he prepares for something like this, he said, “You sit at a table, you get a comfortable chair, and you go through every single one of them.”
Bond said it would take 12 to 16 months just to prepare for trial. That includes going through everything and interviewing the 60 some people the government has already interviewed. If it goes to trial he feels that will last at least 3 weeks.
One of the most interesting parts of the case, according to Bond, is that Collins was 13 at the time the offense occurred. Of course, Bond is contesting whether Collins had any involvement at all. At the age of 13 and the laws that applied then, Collins was not eligible to be transferred or to be tried as an adult. Now, he said, the government is trying to come back under a different charge (murder) and do a transfer hearing, but the law applies from when Collins was 13.
“We will be contesting and litigating this new area of law at every step,” Bond said.
Montgomery County Police Reporter will be covering all the hearings until the conclusion.