40 years after epic fire, convicted man to go free

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 11:00am

What is it like to be thrown behind bars when you're 16 and told you'll languish there for the rest of your life? All for a crime you adamantly claim you didn't commit.

Louis Taylor knows.

He was convicted of arson in a fire that killed 29 people.

On Tuesday, at a retrial in Tucson, Arizona, he is set to plead 'no contest' and walk free. After almost 43 years.

Forensic experts now say they can no longer determine whether someone set the hotel fire on that cool winter day in 1970.

A vintage landmark burns

The Pioneer Hotel, built in 1929 was renowned for its gracious ballroom. At 11 floors, it was a protruding gem in downtown Tucson's skyline at the time.

On December 20, 1970, the vintage hotel was filled with guests, and hundreds more were reveling in holiday cheer at corporate Christmas party.

Just after midnight, a blaze broke out. The landmark building's firefighting measures were badly out of date, and Pioneer quickly transformed into an inferno.

A morbid spectacle of human tragedy unfolded.

Dozens die a horrible death

Twenty-eight people died from smoke inhalation, burns, or, in some cases, when they jumped out of windows to escape. The fire wiped out whole families.

Jake Crellin was the first journalist on the scene.

"I still have flashbacks from time to time from some of the stuff I saw, flashbacks of people jumping out of windows to their death," said the former news director of CNN affiliate KVOA.

He avoided looking at the scene with the naked eye, gazing instead through the viewfinder of a camera.

"It helped make it a little easier to watch," he told the affiliate. A crowd of bystanders gathered and looked on in horror.

Some hotel guests were able to knot bed sheets together to make ropes and rappel to safety.

It was one of the deadliest tragedies in Tucson's history.

A quick arrest

Within hours police arrested a teenage boy, court documents said.

It was Louis Taylor, who had been inside the hotel.

He wasn't a guest and did not work there. And he had books of matches in his pocket.

During police interrogations, the juvenile claimed to have seen someone set the fire. This was before anyone had suspected arson.

But the young man changed his story multiple times.

It made officers suspicious: Maybe it was arson; maybe it was Taylor who started the fire.

Criminal witnesses

Journalist Crellin and KVOA kept up with the case.

Taylor told him that "he had some very tough interviews with the police." He was innocent, he said, a stance he has always maintained.

In an interview on the 25th anniversary of the fire, he told the broadcaster that the fire never goes out of his head.

"I think about it all the time, because I know in my heart and God knows that they got the wrong person. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Prosecutors called two witnesses, who were in juvenile detention with Taylor.

They told the court that Taylor confessed to the crime to them behind bars.

Later, one of the boys said he had been coerced into his testimony and that it was false, court documents said.

Experts for the prosecution and the defense testified that the fire, in their opinion, was caused by arson, though the details of their explanations differed.

In the end, the court found Taylor guilty, convicting him of 28 counts of felony murder.

Judge Charles Hardy, who presided over the case, told Taylor that he didn't believe he meant to hurt anyone.

But the punishment was stiff: "the rest of his natural life in prison," a sentence that at the time did not officially exist in the state of Arizona, court document said.

In hindsight

Decades later, people involved in the conviction and sentencing began to feel bad about the case.

The CBS investigative magazine "60 Minutes" took up the case.

The judge told the program that, looking back, he would not have voted to convict.

The evidence, he said, was not strong enough.

And if the then-teenager did set the fire, it was not Taylor's fault that the hotel was poorly suited to deal with any kind of fire.

Lawyers from the Arizona Justice Project got involved.

The non-profit reviews cases it feels don't live up to just legal standards.

"It is our mission to help assure that Arizona's prisons are not housing those actually innocent of crime or otherwise victims of manifest injustice," reads the mission statement on its website.

The lawyers encouraged the state to review the arson testimony in the original trial based on modern methods.

Two review committees determined that there is no longer enough evidence available to tell whether or not arson was in play.

They said that the experts in the original trial "used methods no longer valid in the science of today."

One of the original trial experts, Cy Holmes, still a fire investigator four decades later, still stands by his testimony today, a court memorandum filed Monday said.

But his testimony can't pin it on Taylor.

So on Tuesday, Taylor will plead 'no contest' to the charges he was previously convicted on, the court memorandum said. The state will find him guilty and sentence him to time already served, a move called "post-conviction relief."

At 59, Taylor may finally walk away from the fire, but he will carry it with him for the rest of his natural life.


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