The Pioneer hotel fire incident happened over 40 years ago, but the man blamed for it, Louis Taylor, is only now being released from prison because of a lack of evidence. Taylor always maintained that he did not set the Tuscon, Ariz. blaze that killed 29 people, but a judge still sentenced him to life in prison.
The Pioneer hotel fire occurred Dec. 20, 1970, and was full because of a corporate Christmas party taking place. Just after midnight a fire broke out, but the 11-story vintage hotel's poor adherence to fire safety codes left many trapped. No sprinklers were present, many doors were locked to prevent theft, and fire ladders could not reach the upper floors, leaving many to jump to their deaths.
Louis Taylor, then 16 at the time, was helping the custodian beat back the flames and lead people to safety. Unfortunately, he still considers himself to have been in "the wrong place at the wrong time."
Taylor was not a guest at the hotel, had books of matches in his pocket, and changed his story multiple times when being questioned by police. A jury decided to convict Taylor in 1972 even though the judge, Charles L. Hardy, expressed his skepticism. Now that the man, now 59-year-old, has been released, he calls what happened that fateful night a "tragedy."
"It's a tale of two tragedies- the Pioneer Hotel fire, and me getting convicted," he told reporters after his release. He previously said on the 25th anniversary of the fire that he has never forgotten the events that led to his years behind bars.
"I think about it all the time, because I know in my heart and God knows they got the wrong person. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Taylor insisted.
Taylor's release was orchestrated partially by public pressure and partially by a lack of forensic evidence. CBS show "60 Minutes" investigated the case, attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project took up the case, and a testimony of confession- two inmates claimed Taylor admitted the crime behind bars- was recanted because of coercion claims. Taylor reached an agreement to plead no contest to the murder charges.
However, fire investigator Cy Holmes stands by his 42-year-old evidence, claiming that arson was committed.