I recently covered several days of the capital murder trial of Don Willburn Collins, 29, who stood accused of tying Robert Middleton to a tree and setting him on fire in 1998 when Collins was 13 and Middleton was 8. Middleton miraculously survived the third degree burns over 99% of his body for 12 years, but died of skin cancer allegedly caused by the burns in 2011 when he was 20.
The trial concluded yesterday (Tuesday, 2/10/15) with the jury finding Collins guilty and sentencing him to the maximum of 40 years (since he was a minor at the time of the burning, he could not be sentenced to life in prison or receive the death penalty).
The trial was moved from Montgomery County to Galveston County because the case had been in the news on and off for 17 years and the concern about finding unbiased jurors was well-founded.
I kept hearing the same thing over and over from random people: How could a person do this to someone else? How does a person get to be so evil?
I pondered those questions as I watched the trial, paying special attention to Collins’ reactions (or really lack of reactions) and trying to piece together a timeline of his childhood that might explain how he became an obvious sociopath.
For every “evil” or “monstrous” person, there’s a story. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, or even explain it, but it does give one insight into how these people evolve.
Collins lost his mother around age 8 and his father had never been around. For a young boy, the absence of a father is especially damaging. I won’t go in depth here, but if you’re interested, make sure to watch the documentary Absent, which is available on Netflix.
Collins became an orphan at a young age. He was then passed around from relative to relative, basically sleeping on floors and couches, as his family was lower middle-class. He ended up at an uncle’s house in the small town of Splendora, TX in a neighborhood that was very rural.
This uncle – actually, many of Collins’ relatives – had a history of criminal behavior. It was never mentioned in the trial, but I am convinced that Collins was sexually abused as a child based on several factors that are “red flags” to me as a trained mental health professional. I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this uncle had participated in that abuse.
The rest of this article is purely my opinion, based on facts and observations I took from the case*. No one has been charged with abusing Collins and I am drawing conclusions based on statistical probabilities. As always, all parties are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Picture if you can, an 8 year-old boy with ginger hair and freckles. He’s just lost his mother, the only person in the world who ever really showed him love. He has no contact with his father. In the midst of his grief, he is placed with a relative who lives in the woods in a mobile home, which really isn’t big enough for the whole family. This young orphan is told to sleep on the couch or the floor. No one is particularly kind to the boy; he feels like a burden and is very angry at the loss of his mom and the absence of his dad. He pushes people away because he doesn’t want to be abandoned yet again.
He’s in that home for 5 years. During that time, his uncle rapes him several times. The young man’s anger builds, and he blames everyone. He feels powerless, helpless and trapped. The people that surround him drink heavily and do drugs, and they openly share their substances with the boy. He uses and drinks. He finds that it helps him feel like he fits in somewhere and sometimes dulls his anger.
He is especially angry toward families that appear complete and happy. This is because he is jealous and feels like these people don’t deserve what he can’t have. He wants to take it away from them somehow.
He starts touching the neighborhood children, both boys and girls. This builds up to actual molestation and rape, for which he will be prosecuted in the future. This is one way to hurt happy people. He knows this because he’s experienced it.
When someone he considers to be part of the “enemy” group, which gets larger every day, commits the slightest perceived infraction against him, he feels that he must punish them. He does this in various ways, ranging from scaring kids to stomping on the head of a neighbor girl’s 10-week old kitten, killing it.
By the time this boy reaches puberty, he’s primed for more violence. No one has shown him love or compassion for years. He’s been abused emotionally, physically and sexually by the very people who give him food and shelter. He’s learned that the entire world is against him and he must defend himself, sometimes making the first move to prevent perceived pain later.
By age 13, the boy is regularly molesting and raping neighborhood children. The trial showed that there were at least 4 victims of his sexual violence in the span of a year, and there may be more who haven’t come forward.
Rape makes the boy feel powerful and in control, something that he doesn’t ever feel in any other situation. He likes it when kids are scared of him. Some of his family members even encourage him to keep hurting people.
When he rapes 7 year-old Robert Middleton, it’s suddenly not enough. He knows that Robert is part of a complete, happy family. He tells Middleton that he better not tell anyone, or he will get killed. Middleton tells no one.
Middleton’s mom, however, notices a change in her son’s behavior. She feels like this “creepy kid” in the neighborhood is stalking him. It was only a few years ago that she had pulled Collins off of her daughter because he was trying to pull down the daughter’s underwear. Moms know when something is wrong with their kids. She asks Robert about it. Robert assures her that Collins “is being nice.”
About 2 weeks after the rape, Robert is tied to a tree, doused with gasoline and set on fire by Collins, who points the finger at another kid who hadn’t even been in the neighborhood when the incident happened.
Collins spends some time in Juvenile Detention. He drifts around after that, doing more time for theft, sexual assault and failing to register as a sex offender in two counties.
Collins in 2015 (Photo: NY Daily News)
When Robert Middleton dies in 2011, Collins officially becomes accused of murder. He is remanded into County Jail in 2013, where he gets tattoos of demonic figures, a revolver pointed into the open mouth of a skull and a swastika on his scalp and arms.
He is now fully evolved. He shows no emotion except an occasional smirk as the witnesses recount the horrors they have experienced. He is all-powerful now. No one can hurt him anymore.
*I am NOT condoning the actions of Collins in ANY way. This piece was meant as a theoretical explanation of how a person becomes sociopathic. This piece is entirely my opinion and does not reflect the views of The Silvercreek Tribune or Houston Community Newspapers.