Florida Keys

Arsonist gets 10 years for burning man in truck

Stuart Collins stands before Judge Ruth Becker with his attorney, Hal Schuhmacher, at Monday’s sentencing.
Stuart Collins stands before Judge Ruth Becker with his attorney, Hal Schuhmacher, at Monday’s sentencing. Keynoter

Jose Gonzalez, victim of an arsonist who burned his truck while he slept inside it, told a judge through an interpreter Monday morning that “it’s better to be dead than to be like this.”

“Like this” means that after being burned over 61 percent of his body three years ago and after 22 surgeries with more to come, he can’t do anything by himself. That includes simple things everyone takes for granted like going to the bathroom. For that, he needs the help of his wife, Rafaela Gonzalez Cisneros, and their son.

“This is the worst thing that can happen to anybody,” a badly scarred Gonzalez, 55, told Acting Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker shortly before she sentenced Stuart Collins, 31, to 10 years in state prison followed by 10 years of probation for causing Gonzalez’s injuries.

Collins also has to attend 99 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 99 days and has a host of other conditions attached to his sentence. That includes paying Progressive Insurance $45,000 for destroying the truck inside which Gonzalez was sleeping.

Throughout the sentencing hearing in Marathon, which took nearly an hour and a half, Collins, formerly of Raleigh, N.C., never looked up and often broke down in tears.

Collins was arrested the morning of July 12, 2013, after setting fire to the 2006 Chevrolet truck while in a drunken stupor. The blaze happened about 3:45 a.m. at J.J.’s Doghouse at U.S. 1 and 107th Street in Marathon. The truck was owned by Gonzale’z’ then-employer, Florida Paving and Trucking Inc. of Homestead. Gonzalez lives in Homestead.

Police found Collins hours later in the same area as the bar, asleep on the ground. He had a cigarette lighter on him and a piece of plastic that appeared to be from a fuel tank that was on the truck, prosecutor Colleen Reed said.

Collins was originally charged with attempted murder, three counts of arson and felony criminal mischief. The attempted-murder charge was dropped and he pleaded no contest to arson-causing bodily harm and felony criminal mischief. On the former, he got 10 years followed by five years of probation. On the latter, he got five years of probation to run consecutive with the other five years.

Monday, Collins’ mother Susan read some letters her son wrote to her from the Monroe County jail. “I’m sorry for not being a better son,” one of them said. Other Collins family members also testified, asking Becker for leniency.

But the judge said what happened three years ago is “an almost incomprehensible tragedy.”

Defense attorney Hal Schuhmacher said there was no evidence Gonzalez and Collins had words before the fire even though police originally said that’s what happened.

Larry Kahn: 305-440-3218