The 28th of June, 1998, was a blistering hot day in Splendora, Texas. It was also the eighth birthday of Robbie Middleton.
Robbie woke up feeling excited. He used some of his birthday money to buy fireworks and then planned on walking through the woods at the back of his house which connected the Crossno neighborhood to another where his friend lived. Robbie had been gifted a tent for his birthday and his mother, Colleen, had set it up in the back garden so that Robbie and his friend could have a sleepover. “It was really, truly one of the happiest days of his life. He just really loved his birthdays,” recollected Colleen.1
On this fateful afternoon, which should have been a day of celebration, Robbie was brutally attacked in the woods as he made his way to his friend’s home. He was tied to a tree before being doused in gasoline and set alight. When the rope burned and Robbie was free from the tree, he managed to stagger home in a ball of flames and collapse in the street. Colleen discovered her son, blistered beyond recognition and barely clinging to life.
Robbie was rushed to the hospital. He suffered third-degree burns to 99% of his small body. Only the soles of his feet remained untouched. His parents were told that he wouldn’t survive but miraculously, he did.
Following the attack, Robbie named 13-year-old Donald Collins as his attacker. Donald was a local sexual predator who lived nearby the Middleton family. Colleen had often warned her son not to go anywhere near Donald and that if he ever saw him while out alone, to just run away. He was arrested and spent several months in juvenile detention but was ultimately released due to lack of evidence and motivation.
Over the forthcoming years, Robbie endured 200+ operations. He looked forward to putting his trauma behind him and moving on and just being happy. “The past is the past. You need to let it go,” Robbie optimistically said. However, his organs were badly damaged by the fire and at the age of 20 in 2011, Robbie passed away from cancer that was caused by the horrific burn injuries. The cause of death was ruled a homicide.
Just 17 days before he passed away, Robbie made a 27-minute video deposition during which he named Donald as his attacker once again. However, this time, Robbie revealed that two weeks before the shocking attack, Donald raped him in the same woods where he would later set him on fire. Finally, a motivation was revealed.
“He took me out into the woods where I was burned. He pulled my clothes down and started raping me,” he recollected. In fact, three years after the attack, Donald had been convicted of sexually assaulting another 8-year-old boy.2
Robbie described how he had been walking through the woods when Donald crept up behind him and splashed gas in his face. He described how he managed to stumble through the woods and onto the public road near his home. “Don grabbed me by my shoulder and threw gas in my face, after that I don’t really remember anything,” recollected Robbie.3
During the video, Robbie also reveals that as he was on fire, he believed that he also heard the voice of an adult who was speaking to Donald.
Following Robbie’s death, Donald was arrested and charged as an adult with capital murder. At the time of the attack, one had to be at least 14-years-old to be certified as an adult. However, years later, that changed. Donald’s defense attorney, Tay Bond, said that moving the case to adult court violated Donald’s rights because the law in 1998 did not allow him to be certified as an adult. Prosecutors, however, said that the murder didn’t take place until 2011 and by this point, minors as young as 10 could stand trial as an adult.
“When Robert died, we were thinking maybe nothing will ever happen, maybe someone is just going to get away with what they did to him. It’s been a long road,” said Colleen.4
During the trial, Colleen told the court room that Robbie had spent his final weeks on earth worrying that he would spend the rest of eternity in hell. He was so concerned about the afterlife that he refused to watch little more than cartoons out of fear a plot line would be racy. “I would tell him, ‘You’re the best person I know, you’re not going to go to hell, Robert,’” she testified.
Gordon Pranger, who had met Robbie during his recovery, said that Robbie confided in him that he worried about going to hell because he had been raped. “Even though he didn’t have a choice in it happening, I think that he felt that that was a sin of having sex before marriage, in his eyes. I think that’s where his idea of going to hell was coming from,” said Gordon.5
Several witnesses testified that Donald had confessed to them that he was responsible for the attack on Robbie. The 8-year-old boy that Donald had sexually assaulted also testified that following the assault, Donald had threatened to burn him if he told anybody what had happened.
In other testimony, Heather Marie White, whose mother was married to Donald’s cousin, said that Donald had confessed to her that “him and Rex hurt Robbie.” Rex was Donald’s uncle and questions had been raised for years about his possible involvement. He denied the accusations and prosecutors said that they didn’t believe that he was involved. 6
Robbie’s family have always believed that an adult was also involved in the attack. “I absolutely believe there was an adult on the trail. But Mr. Collins won’t ever tell who it was. And that’s why I don’t feel sorry for him,” said Colleen.7
In 2015, a jury convicted Donald of murder and sentenced him to the maximum 40 years. The predator was behind bars where he belonged, all thanks to Robbie, who refused to be silenced – even in death.
- Houston Chronicle, 10 February, 2015 – “17 Years Later, Man Guilty in Boy’s Death”
- Houston Chronicle, 6 February, 2015 – “Trial Shows Dramatic Video of Burned Boy”
- The Daily Mirror, 28 September, 2015 – “Boy Tied to Tree and Set Alight”
- Houston Chronicle, 7 March, 2014 – “For Victim’s Family, Day is Bittersweet”
- CBS-11 KHOU, 4 February, 2015 – “Robbie Middleton’s Mother Testifies in Trial of Son’s Accused Attacker”
- Houston Chronicle, 4 March, 2014 – “Key Ruling Expected in Torched Boy Case”
- CBS-11 KHOU, 11 February, 2015 – “Don Collins Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison for Capital Murder”