A Paradise Valley homeless man who burned to death in December may have been tortured

The day after Christmas, Wayne Liersch showed up for work at Paradise Valley Mall. He was a maintenance guy; normally, his day consisted of changing light bulbs and cleaning up spilled sodas. But on this day, his job was to pressure-wash blood and ash off a pair of benches where a man had burned to death the night before.

Liersch's stomach turned when he learned that the victim was Aaron Taylor. Liersch had known Taylor, a 36-year-old homeless man and acquaintance of many workers at Paradise Valley Mall.

"He was just a nice guy who hung around. He never bothered anybody," Liersch says. He and others describe Taylor as a friendly and endearing transient who had taken to the breezeway by the Subway on Cactus Road near Tatum Boulevard.

Taylor was a good listener, say Liersch and other mall employees interviewed for this story. He often sat in his blue sweatshirt and baseball cap and talked with bored workers. He told stories of his unsuccessful efforts to kick drug addiction.

When Subway customers left their trash behind, Taylor would clean it up. When he would get money, he'd walk to the Circle K and buy a candy bar, which he'd give to a Subway worker.

Now Taylor is dead. And police are investigating.

"It was Christmas Day," Liersch says. "Somebody should have been taking him a meal. Instead, somebody did this to him."

Last week, details emerged from a Phoenix police report, indicating that Taylor may have been the victim of frequent torture from three men.

Liersch and others say they saw Taylor duct-taped to his bench on more than one occasion. According to the police report, one mall security guard had also seen Taylor's attackers pour liquids on him and push him on multiple occasions since July.

Then came Christmas Day. The first 911 call came at 6:56 p.m. The caller reported a man on fire, in front of the Subway by Paradise Valley Mall.

During the next four minutes, a mall security guard and a Circle K attendant tried to smother the fire with their jackets. Neither succeeded.

The Phoenix Fire Department arrived to find Aaron Taylor burning while straddling a concrete bench. It is unclear whether he was taped to the bench. Firefighters extinguished the fire and began CPR.

Paramedics rushed Taylor to Maricopa Medical Center's burn unit, where he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner's report shows that Taylor was alive when he caught fire. He stayed alive long enough to inhale the smoke and flames of his own burning body. Ultimately, he burned to death.

A collection of small alcohol bottles littered the benches nearby. A larger, half-empty bottle of Ten High sat on the table next to an unopened Miller Lite and a bag of Cheetos.

Three weeks later, the case is open, labeled a suspicious death without suspects. According to the police report and New Times' interviews, a number of witnesses and nearby employees think Taylor was murdered — lit on fire by the same three men who allegedly taunted him and duct-taped him to the Subway bench.

Because the investigation is ongoing, authorities won't identify the three men — ages 17, 20, and 24 — accused of routinely harassing Taylor.

In the police report, Detective Michael Coddington wrote, "It was believed by some witnesses that some or all of these males were with Aaron earlier in the afternoon and may have had some involvement in Aaron's death."

One of those witnesses says he saw the three men offering Taylor alcohol moments before he caught on fire. Also in the report, another witness told Officer Ronaldo Canilao that around 7 p.m. he saw those three men drinking with Taylor near the Subway. He returned at 7:30 p.m. to find police officers and firefighters there.

A Circle K employee who said he'd known Taylor for three years told police he did not think Taylor was suicidal.

Homeless advocates say there's a trend of violence against transients.

Nicole Peña of the Phoenix Rescue Mission says, "We have seen an increase in the brutality of attacks. It used to be that maybe a guy would be hit on the head and have his bike taken. Now the attacks tend to end up in the hospital."

The Phoenix Rescue Mission has three full-time designated "med beds" for homeless people who have been beaten or injured.

Michael O'Neill of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., confirms that there have been more attacks on homeless people nationwide recently.

In 2006, 122 homeless people were attacked and 20 were murdered, according to NCH data. Sixteen of those attacks took place in Arizona. The data, based on media reports, shows that none of Arizona's attacks that year were fatal.

Nationally, at least two other homeless people were beaten to death within weeks of Christmas 2007. Two Montana youths have been charged in the December 13 beating and murder of a 56-year-old transient. Police say the teens jumped and stomped on the man's head at least 20 times. On December 31, police found a homeless man similarly beaten to death in an abandoned house in Houston.

Sergeant Joel Tranter of the Phoenix Police Department confirms that Taylor's death is under investigation.

"We are following up on some leads. Nobody has moved from lead to suspect," Tranter says. He adds that police are also waiting for results from chemical tests of Taylor's clothes, to see if he'd been doused in alcohol.

As for Wayne Liersch, he cleaned up the ash and blood Aaron Taylor left behind. Then he quit his job.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson