Lawsuit filed over death of man found in hot tub at friend's Arkansas home

BENTONVILLE — A Bentonville man who had a murder charge against him dropped last year is being sued by the dead man's widow.

Bentonville attorney Shane Wilkinson filed the lawsuit Friday on behalf of Kristine Collins Homan in Benton County Circuit Court against James Bates. Bates was at one point charged with first-degree murder, but prosecutors later dismissed the case.

Bates was initially accused of killing a friend — Victor Collins — whose body was discovered in a hot tub at Bates' home in Bentonville. Collins, 47, of Centerton died Nov. 22. 2015.

"We know one thing for sure, Victor Collins died in James Bates' home, and James Bates bears some responsibility for that," Wilkinson said.

Neither Bates nor his attorney in the criminal case, Kathleen Zellner, could be reached for comment. Bates maintained his innocence throughout the criminal proceedings.

Zellner commended Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith for his decision at the time charges were dismissed.

"This case fell apart on the medical evidence," Zellner said. "It wasn't a murder. It was dropped and that's what should have happened."

Smith didn't provide details concerning information provided by Bates' defense team, but noted Arkansas law requires evidence be consistent with the guilt of the accused and inconsistent with any other reasonable explanation.

"After a review of new information provided by the defense and a re-examination of the evidence in this case, I came to the conclusion that the evidence could support more than one reasonable explanation," Smith said. "Accordingly, I am legally obligated to cease prosecution of the case at this time."

Bates was arrested Feb. 22, 2016. Prosecutors dismissed the murder and tampering charges against him in November 2017. Prosecutors have a year to refile the charges against Bates.

"To say I'm devastated is an understatement," Kristine Collins Homan said at the hearing where the charges were dismissed.

"I believe my family, my children and this county deserves better, deserves a fighting chance for someone to make an argument," she said. "I don't feel that was done here."

Her lawsuit claims Bates invited Collins to his home in November 2015 to watch a football game, and Collins began drinking alcohol. Collins and Bates drank more alcohol in the hot tub after the game ended, and Bates later drove Collins to the store to get more alcohol, according to the suit.

They continued to drink alcohol and at some point the two got into a fight, which ended in Collins' death, according to the complaint.

Bates reported at 9 a.m. Nov. 22 to Bentonville police that he found Collins floating face down in his hot tub, according to court documents. The lawsuit claims Bates acknowledged that he left Collins in his hot tub, went to sleep in a bedroom and found Collins the next morning.

The lawsuit claims Collins' death was caused by Bates' willful, wanton, malicious and wrongful acts.

The case was assigned to Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren. The lawsuit is seeking a jury trial and punitive damages against Bates.

The criminal case gained national attention when prosecutors and police got a warrant ordering Amazon to turn over information from the Echo device at Bates' home from the night of Collins' death that may be on the company's servers. Attorneys for Amazon filed a motion seeking to quash the warrant.

The Echo is a speaker controlled by users' voices. It uses a processor to identify a "wake word" and in response to the word connects to Amazon's cloud-based Alexa Voice Service to receive and respond to voice commands. Amazon agreed to turn over the information after Bates' attorney consented.

Smith said his office did not obtain any incriminating evidence from the Echo device.