Young girl hailed as a hero for saving grandmother who was set on fire by ex-boyfriend

Roberto Cocolan, 43, is behind bars for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury and arson

SAN ANTONIO – A 10-year-old girl is being hailed as a hero for saving her grandmother’s life after San Antonio police say her ex-boyfriend set her on fire during a dispute.

The family said Deborah Romo, 57, was in an abusive relationship with Roberto Cocolan, 43.

They said they knew of some instances of abuse, but felt their mother was always scared to leave.

“One thing about my mother is that she was very good at hiding things, so we didn’t know it would ever get to this point,” said Ashley Valdez, Romo’s daughter.

Sadly, Tuesday around 8 p.m. when Romo was getting off work, an argument escalated.

Nevaeh Gallegos, her granddaughter, witnessed everything.

“I heard them arguing,” Nevaeh said. “Then I saw my grandma go put on her pajamas and Robert went to take a shower. My grandma was sitting on the couch and the Robert started arguing about his truck keys.”

She said things got quiet, but afterward, she witnessed something no child should ever have to see.

“I heard my grandma screaming and then she was on the couch, but I saw her on the floor,” Nevaeh said “He was standing and pouring gas on her and she was crying. I pushed him and tried to hit him, but he still continued doing it.”

San Antonio police said after pouring gas on Romo, Cocolan allegedly used a lighter to ignite her on fire.

“I was sad because I couldn’t help her more,” Nevaeh said. “I started crying because I couldn’t find my grandma because of all of the smoke. I then heard her tell me to go get my tio Martin next door.”

That is when she grabbed her 2-year-old sister, put a blanket over her face to prevent smoke inhalation, and ran next door to get help.

Even more unfortunate, the family said they had to use mop water to put the fire out.

“I believe he planned this,” said Ambeer Vega, the victim’s daughter. “He cut the water off to the house before doing this. There was no running water in the household, so we had to use water in the mop bucket.”

The fire resulted in 35% of Romo’s body being covered in burns.

“She has burns from her face, ears, arms, all the way down,” said Ambeer Vega. “Second and third degree burns.”

The family said they are beyond angry with Cocolan and do not have any forgiveness for what he did.

“I have no words,” said Jay Gallegos, the victim’s son-in-law. “For him to do something like this in front of my children and to my beautiful mother-in-law. He tried to take her beauty away from her. All I would say is ‘why?’”

Romo is a certified nursing assistant at Christus Santa Rosa.

The family said she loved her job so much she would work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

“She impacted so many people,” said Michael Vega, her son. “Anyone who knew her loved her. I just thank everyone for helping until this man was caught.”

“She is still going to be beautiful,” said Ambeer Vega. “She has lost nothing. She still has everything --family, friends, and her beauty. She is still beautiful.”

The family now wants this story to raise awareness for domestic violence.

“Even if you are scared, speak up and tell someone,” said Valdez. “Reach out for help. You are not alone. There are many resources out there for you.”

“My mother is a strong fighter,” said Angela Vega, her daughter. “I would say you fight and defend yourself and get out. The people will eventually get what they deserve and I am going to make sure he (Cocolan) doesn’t get parole.

Cocolan was later arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury and arson.

His bond has been set at $500,000.

“I want him to sit in there and I want him to suffer the way my mom is having to sit in that hospital and go through that pain,” said Ambeer Vega.

Romo’s tiny hero had this to say directly to her.

“I want to tell her I love her so much,” Nevaeh said. “Her family loves her and her friends love her and we hope she can come home soon.”

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Japhanie Gray joined 10 News as an anchor in March 2022.