MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Stuart Collins and Jose Gonzalez had never met before the night of July 11 in the Florida Keys.
Collins, from North Carolina, had just turned 26, and was in the Keys visiting a friend.
Gonzalez, 47, of Homestead, was a member of a work crew from Florida Paving.
Their futures are now inextricably linked after crossing paths at JJ’s Doghouse Bar, a shot-and-a-beer kind of place catering to locals in Marathon.
Moments after Gonzalez left the bar and went to sleep in the paving truck parked on a side street; Collins staggered to the back of the vehicle, pulled out a lighter and set the truck on fire causing it to explode into flames.
Collins ran off and was arrested six hours later, passed out under a staircase less than 30 yards from the truck fire. He was charged with arson and attempted second degree murder.
Gonzalez survived, suffering second and third degree burns over 60 percent of his body. He has been in and out of a coma for weeks but is expected to live.
The events of that night have left nearly everyone involved coping with guilt and questioning how they might have prevented this tragedy.
“Oh my God, if I had known even for a minute that he was in that truck I would have tried to do what I could to maybe possibly get him out,” said bartender Danielle Deslongchamps.
The events of July 11 are being dissected by fire marshals, prosecutors and insurance investigators. Lawsuits are being threatened, some witnesses have disappeared.
But the one thing that is ever constant is an eight camera video surveillance system that captured everything going on inside and outside the bar that night.
John Brobyn has owned the bar for eight years. Back in the day, Brobyn admits, the bar had a reputation for a rough and rowdy crowd. Now, he says, it’s a locals hangout, open from 7 am till closing time at 4 in the morning.
“A lot of unique people come in here,” Danielle added.
And so it was on the night of Thursday, July 11. A little after 2 a.m., a work truck from Florida Paving pulls up and its three-man crew is warmly greeted by those inside the bar.
By 3 a.m. Danielle was getting ready to close when a cab pulled up at the side door. A late night contingent from another Marathon bar emerged, looking for last call. Stuart Collins stumbled out of the front passenger’s seat and had to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling. Danielle pointed to him immediately and told him he wasn’t getting anything else to drink.
“I told him I would serve everybody but you,” she recalled. “And he was like why. And I said, `Well clearly you are intoxicated and I’m not going to serve you.’ And he’s like, `Can I come in and hang out till my friends are done.’ And I was like, `Yeah, you can come in.’”
It seemed like one big happy crowd and as the others drank and played pool, Collins wandered about, swaying from side to side and staring into the distance.
Collins went in and out of the bar several times. Collins and Gonzalez rarely interacted. At one point you can see Gonzalez and Collins outside the bar together. Collins was leaning against the door and Gonzalez gently moved him to the side so he could get in. At another point on the video you can see Collins sneaking a beer given to him by one of the guys from the paving company.
The belief is that Collins was upset he wasn’t being served.
Just before 3:30 in the morning, Gonzalez left the bar for the last time, climbing into the cab of his truck and going to sleep.
As Gonzalez settled in for his nap, Collins is seen pacing up and down the street. After a few minutes Collins approached the back of the truck. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a lighter. Holding the lighter to the back of the truck, it is apparent Collins was attempting to light something in the truck on fire. After several attempts a huge fireball erupts and the truck is enveloped by flames. Collins ran off as propane tanks on the back of the truck explode.
As she called fire rescue, Danielle tried to get everybody out of the bar.
“I was trying to get everybody down this way but everybody kept running back because they wanted to see the fire,” she said.
Eventually the patrons fled through the front door; many still carrying their drinks. At the time no one realized Gonzalez was still in the truck. Six minutes and 30 seconds after a fireball consumed the truck, the first fire units arrived. Almost on cue, the truck door opened and Gonzalez walked out of the fire, the fire literally dripping from his body.
A startled firefighter points to Gonzalez as a sheriff’s deputy leads Gonzalez away from the truck for fear that it was about to explode.
Slowly Gonzalez walked down the block, following the deputy. Fire still shooting off his back, Gonzalez sat down on the curb. Eventually, a firefighter with a water tank came along to douse Gonzalez and extinguish the flames.
Gonzalez was airlifted to the burn unit at the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami. He has undergone numerous surgeries and more are expected.
Thanks to the surveillance video, detectives quickly identified Collins as the arsonist and mounted a massive search, even alerting Miami International Airport to be on the lookout for him.
But Collins was closer than they thought. After setting the fire he ran about thirty yards down the street and crawled under a stairwell.
“From what I understand he wasn’t hiding, he was passed out,” Danielle said.
Collins had gone unnoticed by emergency crews for six hours before finally being spotted a passerby and arrested.
“I’m glad they caught him,” Danielle said.
The question remains: Why? Why did he light the truck on fire? And did he know Gonzalez was inside? A few hours after being taken into custody, and still reeking of booze, Collins was questioned by detectives.
Here is a partial transcript of the 45 minute interview:
COLLINS: I know we were going somewhere but its all really blurry. And I remember talking to somebody. I believe he was a young Mexican guy. Then the next thing I remember I was walking behind a building and laying down underneath a stairway because I was tired. I didn’t know where I was.
DETECTIVE: You don’t remember anything else?
COLLINS: No sir.
DETECTIVE: There was a fire. Do you remember a fire?
COLLINS: No I don’t remember a fire.
DETECTIVE: You set fire to this vehicle.
COLLINS: Was somebody hurt?
DETECTIVE: Um, yes there was. Did you set it intentionally; did you have a beef with this guy?
COLLINS: I don’t usually, I’m not, I’m not a violent person. I want to do anything I can to help. I don’t know. I’m sorry someone got hurt. Maybe if I felt more stable I would remember more. I really – I don’t remember starting any fire.
Collins told detectives he only had two rum and cokes and three beers over a six hour span.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and he remains in the Monroe County Jail.