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The Burning Boy

One day this past August, fourteen-year-old Justin Gilman of Colorado Springs asked his friends to set him on fire. So the teenagers got some gasoline from the local 7-Eleven and soaked Gilman's blue jeans with it. Gilman lay down on the grass in the backyard of a friend's home, and three kids knelt before him with cigarette lighters. A second later, Gilman's legs were engulfed in flame.

Eight kids watched him burn. No one called an ambulance, even after Gilman ran around the yard screaming for help. After Gilman extinguished the fire by jumping into a plastic wading pool, he raced into the front yard, yelling for someone to call 911. He collapsed on the porch of next-door neighbor Tina Felipe. The skin on his legs was peeling off; Felipe says he "looked like he'd been dragged on the street."

Three months later, no one can explain what happened that day. Five teenagers have been charged in connection with the incident: Two have pled guilty to juvenile charges and have been given probation; the other three are being processed by the justice system. But investigators still don't have many answers.

"I don't think I've ever run into anything like this," says Lieutenant Dennis DiTullio of the Colorado Springs Fire Department, one of the first officers on the scene. "Most of the people I've seen who tried to commit suicide--if that's what he was doing, I don't know--used pills or a gun or cut themselves. You just don't see too many people use fire to hurt themselves."

Monday, August 18, 5 p.m.
Eduardo Sambrano, age sixteen, lives alone at the blue house on Royalty Court. The racially mixed middle-class neighborhood is nestled in the foothills beneath Pikes Peak on the west side of Colorado Springs.

Sambrano has been living by himself ever since his mother, Maria, a schoolteacher, left for the hospital, seriously ill from a brain tumor. His brother and sister, Steve and Brenda Sambrano, come by several times a week to check on him. Steve Sambrano, a 22-year-old pre-med student, says his brother has been alone for only a few weeks when Gilman is burned. No one expected their mother to be in the hospital so long, he says, and he was just about to tell Eddie to move in with him.

A neighbor, Carisa Jaramillo, says Eddie has been living by himself for several months, not a few weeks. "His brother and sister paid the bills, but they couldn't get Eddie out of the house," Jaramillo says.

Eddie's not in school. Neighbors say he works at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, but zoo officials say he's never been employed there.

Eddie's next-door neighbors, Rick and Theresa Tuggle, say they bring him food once in a while. They say Eddie is a good kid, other than playing his car stereo too loud when he pulled in late one night--which he never did again after they mentioned it to him.

Justin Gilman has been staying with Sambrano for several days. Steve Sambrano says his mother and brother often harbored kids in trouble. "Mom had let a couple of friends of his stay, but she didn't know the kids were runaways," he says. "She gave bread to anyone who asked. Eddie's the same way."

"Eddie's problem was he had a heart," says Rick Tuggle. "He said, 'I'm not gonna turn a friend out.'"

Nobody in the neighborhood knows much about Gilman, just that his nickname is J.J. and that he seems to have a thing for playing with fire. The mixed-race kid has no home address, isn't in school, and has run away from several youth homes. (Law enforcement officials contacted by Westword say they know nothing about Gilman's background; school and social-services officials say they can't legally release information about juveniles.)

Besides taking in kids on the run, Eddie Sambrano also likes having friends over. So it's not unusual when seven kids, all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, show up at his door in the late afternoon. Friends of Sambrano's say the kids usually just hang out and play Nintendo. One friend, Nick Luttig, who isn't there the day of the burning, says drugs are sometimes present, but nothing big. Just some marijuana.

The kids hanging out at Eddie's on the 18th fall into two groups, and they don't know each other. Douglas Nead, Josh Mathern, John Peterson and Philip Legus arrive in the eighteen-year-old Nead's recently purchased Jeep. Fourteen-year-old Chad Skitt arrives with his friend Cori Dobson and her friend Josh Boarder. (Of all the kids who were there, only Skitt would talk to Westword.) Skitt's crew has dropped by the house of another teenager, Paul Lucero, who lives up the street. Lucero, however, is out shopping. Eddie's place is just across the street and down a few houses, so they decide to stop in for a while.  

According to Skitt, everyone sits inside on couches, hanging out and talking. Skitt says Eddie is a drug dealer. He says he knows this because he's bought marijuana from Eddie. He says some of the kids are there for the drugs.

Skitt says he never saw Gilman until that day. He seemed like "a normal kid," Skitt says. "Just trying to impress everybody."

August 18, 5:30 p.m.
Skitt is bored. He asks Dobson if she wants to leave, but she doesn't, so they stay. Sambrano is doing most of the talking, holding center stage, Skitt says. Eddie is telling stories, bragging about this or that. "Then he starts talking about how Justin did all this crazy stuff, like putting cigarettes out on his arm," says Skitt. Gilman has a huge scab on his arm where the previous smokes have been extinguished. As the rest of the kids watch, Sambrano puts out two more cigarettes on the scab.

Gilman shows no reaction. He's "trying to be tough," says Skitt. "I don't know if it hurt or not." Then, says Skitt, Eddie starts talking about how he has lit Justin on fire a few times before. He's "kind of excited to be telling everybody."

Gilman is excited, too. He claims to have a father in jail and a mother who died in a fire. Investigators later suspect that he's lying. Brian Baldwin, a former roommate of Gilman's at the Future Bound youth home, says that "J.J. liked to lie and get people in trouble." Like the time Gilman had a pack of cigarettes in the bedroom they were sharing and said it belonged to Baldwin.

But Gilman's not lying about his obsession with fire. Rick Tuggle, a drywaller, says that a few nights before the incident at Sambrano's house, Justin asked him if he would light his hair on fire. Tuggle said no. "I saw him sit out and light the ruffles on his jeans on fire," he recalls. Also in the days before the fire, says Theresa Tuggle, a Wal-Mart employee, Gilman came over and asked for any flammable materials she might have and then requested that she set him on fire. She, too, refused.

"He was always real weird," says Paul Lucero of Gilman. "He was always lighting himself on fire. His hair was short--it was frayed and burned." Lucero says he saw Justin set his hair on fire on August 17 by lighting a piece of paper and holding it against his head. "Eddie went in and got a bowl of water and made him put it out," Lucero says.

Last year in the eighth grade, Lucero says, he saw Justin around at East Middle School. "He always had a little lighter going--'click, click, click,'" Lucero adds, affecting a goofy Beavis and Butt-Head accent as he describes the sound made by the lighter. According to Lucero, Sambrano had grown tired of having Gilman live with him but couldn't bring himself to throw his friend out.

Lucero says that on August 17 he and Sambrano tried to discourage Gilman from hanging around by taking him to a hardware store to buy some screws for Maria Sambrano's car and then ditching him. Their plan didn't work. Gilman caught up with them later in the day and, says Lucero, wasn't even mad about being left behind.

"Eddie felt bad for him," Lucero says. "He wouldn't tell him to leave."

August 18, 6:15 p.m.
As Sambrano tells the kids more firebug stories, says Skitt, Gilman decides that he "wants to light himself on fire more than any of us." Finally, it seems time for a live demonstration. "Eddie told him to put on a different pair of clothes."

Gilman goes downstairs and changes out of his Dickies into a pair of Tommy Hilfiger jeans and a Denver Broncos sweatshirt. Then, says Skitt, Gilman begins looking around the house for something flammable. He finally grabs a can of Raid bug spray that's sitting on the piano. He saturates a small area at the bottom of his pant leg and tries to ignite himself with his lighter.

According to Skitt, Gilman spends five minutes trying to light himself on fire. Skitt becomes intrigued: "If he's done it before, I guess he can do it again," he remembers thinking. "There were a bunch of us waiting to see what he could do."

Sambrano helps too, says Skitt, trying to give Justin a light for about two minutes before giving up to go search for something that will really do the job. He looks everywhere for some gasoline, going so far as to check the lawnmower's gas tank. There isn't any gas in the house.  

"Eddie asked one of the four kids in the Jeep--I'm pretty sure it was Doug [Nead]--if he gave him some money would he get some gasoline," Skitt continues. "Doug said yeah."

Though Nead denies it, Skitt and seventeen-year-old John Peterson tell police that Nead and Peterson took the Jeep to a 7-Eleven on Uintah Road, about five minutes from the house. Investigators say video footage shot by the convenience store's surveillance camera shows the two boys parking near the gas pumps and later paying for something, although it doesn't show them actually pumping gasoline. Based on interviews with Peterson and other evidence, investigators conclude the two purchased about a dollar's worth of gasoline.

When Nead and Peterson return to the Sambrano home, the kids gather on the deck out back. There's a plastic kiddie pool in the yard filled with water. "Everybody was kind of amused," Skitt recalls. "I was thinking he'd do it and get out of it. I thought he could probably get out of it.

"So Eddie tells Justin to take off his pants so he can pour gasoline on them."

The mood among the kids is low-key. The kids here for the drugs are annoyed that they're being forced to sit through this, and the kids just hanging out seem decidedly uninterested. "'Do this if you're gonna do it,'" deadpans Skitt, describing the general reaction.

Police reports suggest that only one kid, Josh Boarder, raises any real objection to what's about to take place. Skitt volunteers that someone might want to bring the garden hose around. "But everybody was too involved"--and besides, they "didn't know where [the hose] was--didn't know if there was one."

Next, says Skitt, Gilman takes off his Tommy Hilfiger jeans. Sambrano pours gas on them and tells Justin to put them back on. Justin lies on his back, his feet pointing toward the deck, about five feet away. "Eddie tells everyone to grab a lighter," says Skitt. "So I took him up on it."

Skitt says he doesn't exactly know what compelled him. "It was just a stupid thought," he says. "I was curious. I just wanted some action. I was tired of Eddie. Tired of hearing him. He's a bragger--Eddie tries to be number one."

Skitt joins Sambrano and sixteen-year-old Josh Mathern as they step up to Gilman. Skitt and Sambrano kneel down, while Mathern bends over. They whip their lighters out. Skitt says Sambrano's catches first, and it takes only a second. "All three of us jumped back onto the deck," he says. "Everybody watching was astonished. It went up his legs. It was flaming."

Immediately, Gilman begins rolling around to put himself out. "He was screaming at the top of his lungs," says Skitt. "Everybody was getting scared. He starts screaming, 'Please help me!'"

It's at this point that Sambrano's neighbor, Rick Tuggle, steps outside with a beer and catches some of the action.

"I was looking at the weather, which rolls over the hills," Tuggle says. Instead, he sees Gilman, on fire from the knees down. Gilman is on a hill at the edge of the backyard, and the other kids are standing on the deck. Tuggle sees Sambrano run toward Justin to put the fire out with a large bucket of water.

Gilman manages to pull his still-burning pants down below his knees. But he trips short of the wading pool. Skitt says he and Peterson each grab a shoulder and "drag him right in" to the water.

The pool extinguishes the blaze. Gilman calms down and doesn't seem to be in too much pain. Sambrano continues to play with the gasoline, lighting small fires, including one in the pool that he creates by throwing gas on the water and lighting it.

"Nobody wanted to get near him," Skitt says of Gilman. "Eddie was having a great time with the lighter."

Gilman seems intrigued as he examines his wounds, "peeling chunks of skin from his legs," says Skitt. "But he had a terrified look." A moment later Gilman starts screaming and goes upstairs to the bathtub.

Gilman soaks in a tub of water for a few minutes, shouting down to the others that the burns hurt. Then he comes back downstairs wearing silk boxers and the Broncos sweatshirt. He sits on the couch looking at his burns. Charred rectangles of skin have been burned into each leg. "Everybody was sick to their stomach," says Skitt. "Everyone knew he was in pain, and when he came down, I didn't want to be there anymore."

Neither does anyone else. Sambrano and one of the other kids begin to argue about whether to call the police. "Eddie didn't want the cops there," says Skitt. "Eddie and the other kid went at it. Everyone else was standing around in shock, petrified, like, 'Whoa...'"  

Steve Sambrano says it's his understanding that nobody called 911 from the house because the phone wasn't working. By the time Gilman runs from the home, screaming for help, the other kids have left.

August 18, 6:37 p.m.
Carisa Jaramillo is visiting her grandmother, who lives just up the street from the Sambrano residence. She hears Gilman running up the street, yelling, "I was burned! Help me. Call me an ambulance!"

Jaramillo says she thinks maybe "he's playing" but sees him limping and so goes down the street to check it out.

"He told me he was smoking a cigarette and he was gonna start mowing the lawn," says Jaramillo. "He told me he turned it on and he dropped the cigarette and set himself on fire."

Gilman's legs look hideous. One looks "like a streak of white, like a streak of white paint," says Jaramillo. "It bubbled out right before my eyes." The other leg, she says, is red, "like a really bad sunburn." Gilman pulls at his skin, and "a whole layer" simply slides off.

Gilman makes his way to the porch of next-door neighbor Tina Felipe, who's working in her basement but can hear the boy screaming through the screen door. She calls 911, thinking maybe he's been bitten by a dog. When she comes outside, Gilman is rolling around on her porch, close to passing out. He gives her the lawnmower bit, too.

Felipe runs her hand through Gilman's hair to calm him. It's sandy brown, and she says she doubts that it was previously set on fire, because it didn't feel brittle or frayed.

August 18, 6:45 p.m.
Firefighters arrive, responding to a call that an individual has caught on fire while smoking near his lawnmower. It doesn't sound right to firefighter Bill Stanford. "A cigarette won't ignite gasoline," Stanford says. "It sounded suspicious from the beginning."

Gilman is in the first stages of shock when firefighters and paramedics arrive. Stanford estimates that Gilman has second- and third-degree burns over "40 to 45 percent of his body. He was in some intense pain. He was pretty hysterical. You couldn't get a whole lot of information out of him."

Stanford says second-degree burns are more painful than third-degree burns because the nerves aren't dead.

By the time John Shumaker, the arson investigator assigned to head up the investigation, gets there, Gilman has been transported to Penrose Main Hospital. Shortly thereafter he is airlifted to Children's Hospital in Denver. Shumaker never speaks with him.

Once the investigation begins, Gilman's lawnmower story quickly gets shot down. Cigarettes don't burn hot enough to ignite gasoline, investigators say. Furthermore, they find the lid to the mower's gas tank still fastened, and there's no burn damage to the mower. Shumaker notices a piece of burned cloth on the ground in front of two trash cans and another piece of cloth inside a trash can. Both pieces smell like gasoline. There are also burned matches on the sidewalk.

Out back, Shumaker finds the wading pool full of water with a film on top, "like what would come from gasoline." A red two-gallon gas can still stands on the rail of the deck. Its lid is off.

Shumaker also spots the gas- and water-soaked blue jeans and a dark-colored T-shirt, "soaked and with minor burn damage."

Soon Sambrano's brother Steve arrives and grants investigators permission to look through the house. Inside they find burned paper on the kitchen floor, a burned sweatshirt inside a trash can and more pieces of burned paper. According to Shumaker's written report, they also find burned matches and "what appear to be marijuana seeds."

Investigators begin piecing through a series of stories and accounts of the fire. Steve Sambrano tells investigators that his brother called him from a pay phone and claimed that "Justin poured gas in a silver bowl that had water in it and set it on fire. He--Justin--stepped in the bowl and caught himself on fire."

Shumaker studies the bowl, still on the countertop. He finds a shoeprint in the bottom of it "that appeared to be burned" but can detect no odor of gasoline in the bowl, making the phoned-in story seem unlikely. Eddie Sambrano returns to the house shortly after the investigators arrive and promptly gives another account of what happened.

Shumaker includes Eddie's version of events in his official report:
"Ed said that Justin said he wanted to light himself on fire. Ed said he thought this was just 'bullshit.' Ed said that Justin then got up in front of everyone and took off his pants. Justin went outside and got a gas can from the front yard by the lawnmower and then went into the backyard. He laid the pants on the ground and poured the gas on them. Ed said that Justin then put the pants back on. Ed said that he wouldn't tell [me] who did set him on fire. Eventually Ed did say that two people set Justin on fire and they both used lighters to do this. Ed said that he grabbed a pan of water that was the dog's water and threw it on Justin. Justin ran around the backyard for a few seconds burning. Justin got on the ground and took off the pants."  

Sambrano's version concludes with him taking Gilman upstairs to put him in the bathtub. The investigators don't ask Sambrano why he allowed Gilman to be set on fire in the first place. But Nick Luttig, Sambrano's friend who wasn't at the fire, tells Westword that Sambrano "doesn't feel he needs to stop anything. He lets people do what they want."

Sambrano continues to refuse to tell investigators who set Gilman ablaze but gives up the names of the kids who were at the house. Nead and his friends at first claim that they were out front when the fire was set because they didn't want to see Gilman set on fire. Nead tells Shumaker that when he heard Gilman screaming, he went inside the house and saw "Ed slamming him on the ground, trying to put the fire out."

But Theresa Tuggle tells Shumaker that she didn't see anybody in the front yard around the time of the fire. She did see all the kids out front earlier, though, as she was taking her daughter up the street to visit a friend. As she passed Sambrano's house, she says, Gilman shouted, "Theresa, I'm gonna set myself on fire! You wanna watch?"

"I told him no. I told him he was stupid," she says. "I was kind of afraid. I didn't want my daughter around this guy."

After Tuggle dropped her daughter off, she came back down the street. This time, she says, it was Sambrano who asked her if she wanted to watch.

Tuggle says she didn't think to call the police. "I thought this kid was playing these games again," she says of Gilman. "Besides, it wasn't my problem. The boy was so determined to do it. How are you gonna stop somebody who's already determined?

"I'm glad I wasn't there. I went back in my house."

Looking back on it, Shumaker says he believes that Nead and his pals probably compared notes with each other to get their stories straight. "When it took place, everybody was out back," Shumaker says. "Everyone knew exactly what was going on. Everyone could be charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The reason we didn't was that peer pressure is such that they weren't gonna make a statement."

Nead and his friends aren't the only ones who apparently tried to get their stories straight. Skitt says that Sambrano caught up to him and Dobson several blocks from the house after they'd left and was adamant that they all tell police Gilman had set himself on fire.

According to Cori Dobson's interview with investigators, Sambrano told her he had helped set Gilman on fire the day before, August 17. "Cori said she guessed they did because J.J. had a burn on the back of his head," Shumaker wrote in his report. "J.J. said it was 'cool' and he wanted to do it again. At that time, Eddie said, 'Yeah, let's do it again.'"

Dobson told investigators she was asked to put a shirt around Gilman's legs, but she was "grossed out" because Gilman was "pulling the skin off of his legs and throwing it on the ground in front of her."

Shumaker says he still can't quite make sense of what he saw. "All seemed to come from decent homes with caring parents," he says. "There were no poor, destitute kids. These were clean-cut, middle-class, all-American kids. When you take a group of really good kids and one bad apple, the good kids won't bring him up to their standards. The bad kid will bring them down to his."

Today Justin Gilman's exact whereabouts are unknown. After returning from Children's Hospital in September, he reportedly spent some time at the Future Bound home in Colorado Springs. He ran away a few days later, staffers say, but turned up at another youth home, the Nevada House. Officials at the Nevada House won't say whether he ever spent time there. He is now thought to be at an undisclosed foster home.  

Future Bound counselor Joyce James says Gilman had "pretty bad" burns on his arms and legs when he got back from Denver. "He didn't seem to be in pain," she says. Future Bound staffers add that Gilman's stories about what happened were too contradictory to sort out.

Gilman's old roommate, Brian Baldwin, says he saw Gilman at a Colorado Springs mall in late October. He says his friend wasn't under any kind of adult supervision. Baldwin says Gilman got into a fight with one of Baldwin's friends, who had also spent time in a youth home with Gilman and accused Gilman of stealing a pair of his blue jeans.

Five of the kids involved in the August 18 incident have been charged. Chad Skitt and John Peterson were charged as juveniles, accused of fourth-degree arson and first-degree assault. They have accepted plea agreements, pleading guilty to fourth-degree arson, and are out on probation.

El Paso County prosecutor Brian Hunt says eighteen-year-old Douglas Nead has been charged as an adult with fourth-degree arson, first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Nead has been offered a plea agreement but as yet hasn't accepted it. One of the reported sticking points is that if he does accept it, his new Jeep will be forfeited to the DA's office and will most likely be auctioned off. The proceeds would go toward paying Gilman's medical bills.

Sixteen-year-old Eddie Sambrano also has been charged as an adult, according to his public defender, Kimberly Dvorchak. He faces counts of fourth-degree arson, first-degree assault, attempted manslaughter and aiding or harboring a runaway child. Shumaker says Sambrano has been offered a plea but also hasn't accepted it, reportedly because it would involve jail time.

Josh Mathern was charged with first-degree assault, attempted manslaughter and fourth-degree arson. Shumaker says Mathern will be charged as a juvenile if he takes a plea and as an adult if he doesn't.

Skitt says he's upset that he had to stay longer than Sambrano in the Zebulon Pike Detention Center--a total of thirty days. "I don't know how they work that," he says. "I'm mad I'm sitting in ZP longer than anyone else. Eddie's not even close to being a good kid."

Skitt was expelled from Coronado High School, will be on probation until he turns eighteen and was fined $300. He has little explanation for why he and the other kids did what they did. "I wasn't thinking," he says. "Pretty much sick thinking--anything for entertainment. It's probably what they were thinking."

Eddie Sambrano, meanwhile, still has his supporters back on Royalty Court. Neighbors on his block say he's a good kid who's never been in trouble before. Steve Sambrano says the emotional stress of their mother's illness may have clouded his brother's judgment.

"He says he didn't do it, so I got to take his word," Steve Sambrano says. "Innocent until proven guilty." He says Eddie now has a full-time job as a drywaller.

As for Justin Gilman, neighbors think that his injuries may dissuade him from playing with fire again. "He'd never really been burned," says Rick Tuggle. "He got burned. He'll probably never do it again.


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