The parents of a man who died just short of his 21st birthday, 13 years after a teenage boy set fire to him, say they're relieved by the attacker's capital murder conviction and 40-year prison sentence.
Bobby and Colleen Middleton said that relief is tempered by a renewed sense of loss the trial of Don Collins left them over the death of son Robbie.
The burns Robbie suffered on his eighth birthday led to a lifetime of pain and surgeries before cancer blamed on his burns killed him just short of his 21st birthday.
"So much was stolen from us," Colleen Middleton told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1ArPwOT ).
Collins, who's now 29 but was 13 at the time of the attack, received the maximum sentence allowed juvenile offenders for capital murder after trial in Galveston last week.
According to trial evidence, Collins poured gasoline on young Middleton and set fire to him in 1998 near Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston. Prosecutors have said Collins burned Robbie to silence him after earlier sexually assaulting the child.
Middleton endured years of physical therapy before he died in 2011 from skin cancer blamed on his burns. Doctors who treated the child for his burns hadn't expected Robbie to survive, but he did.
"He was quite the ladies' man," Heather Middleton, Robbie's sister, told the Chronicle. Some of his girlfriends had been burn patients with him at the Shriners burn hospital in Galveston, but others had no health problems, she said.
He would spend all day exchanging tests with one girl he had befriended online. "She misses him and still leaves messages on his Facebook page," Heather said.
"He was the one who kept all of us upbeat," Heather said. "He would tell us, `The past is the past. You need to let it go.' He had a most amazing optimistic nature and maturity for a young boy," she said.
Colleen Middleton said Robbie's burns left his siblings struggling to adjust to a new world.
After the attack, she said, "Heather had to go from being 13 to an adult overnight" as their father spent weekdays on the road and Colleen spent days with Robbie at the Galveston hospital.
The investigation into Robbie's attack languished for years as Collins spent his teens in and out of juvenile prisons for convictions ranging from theft and sexual assault to resisting arrest and failing to register as a sexual offender.
Only after the Middleton's won a civil judgment against Collins did the criminal investigation gain new steam, leading to last week's conviction and sentence.
Defense attorney E. Tay Bond has said he plans to appeal the verdict on constitutional grounds, arguing that a 1999 law that lowered the age when a juvenile could be tried as an adult from 14 to 10 was applied retroactively to Collins.
Colleen Middleton said she tries not to be concerned about an appeal, which she is powerless to control.
"I'm sick and tired of being sad all the time. This case has taken enough of my life," she said.
Daughter Heather agrees. "We've been dealing with this for more than half my life. Now it's finally over and I'm relieved. We saw it through to the end like Robbie wanted, but we want to have our own life now."
An urn containing Robbie's ashes sit in the Middletons' living room. "I couldn't put him in the cold ground," his mother said. "I'll bury him with me when I die."