Longform

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.

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T.R. Witcher

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