Louis Taylor Is Free After Four Decades in Prison for Burning Down A Hotel

After nearly 42 years in prison, Louis Taylor is adjusting to the world as a free man. 

Taylor cried Wednesday morning when talking about his new found liberation and says he took a hike and even ate some fast food to help him readjust to society. 

"I'm kind of overwhelmed," he says, "but I'm free. That's the most important thing."

Taylor was arrested in 1970 and later convicted of setting fire to a Tucson hotel that killed 29 people. Taylor, who is Black, was sentenced by an all-white jury to life in prison, but has always maintained his innocence and was released Tuesday after his attorneys raised new doubts about his conviction, also saying his arrest was racially biased. 

Taylor entered a no contest plea in order to be freed immediately. He could have taken it to court again, maybe even sued for wrongful conviction, but that would have meant years of further trials.

Authorities still believe he's guilty, but admit that a retrial would be hard to win because much of the evidence is lost and witnesses have died or cannot be found.  

Taylor is now 58 years old and practically bald, but he was only 16 when police arrested him for the Pioneer Hotel Fire. 

That day at the hotel, hundreds had gathered to celebrate Christmas festivities. When the hotel caught fire, the exits were blocked, trapping many guests in their rooms. Some died from carbon-monoxide poisoning, some burned alive, and because ladders were too short to reach certain rooms, others leapt to their death. 

Taylor was seen helping people out of their rooms during the blaze, and later said he was originally at the hotel to steal food and drinks from the party. 

The Arizona Justice Project and a CBS "60 Minutes" investigation - aired more than a decade ago - raised doubt as to whether the Pioneer Hotel fire had even been started by an arsonist. 

Correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed investigators who cited new science and procedures for determining arson that have been developed over the decades, which lead to uncertainty as to whether the Pioneer fire was accidental or not. The investigation also pointed a dubious finger toward Cy Holmes, an original fire investigator on the case. 

During the trial, Holmes gave six or seven profile clues as to who might have started the fire. Two of the suggestions were that the arsonist was "probably a negro, and he's probably 18."

At 83, Holmes says he can't remember what lead him to that conclusion, but knows that there were numerous factors that did so. 

Holmes still works as a fire investigator in Elk Grove, Calif. and says "I was digging in the ashes yesterday."

He says each person brings their own education, background and feelings to the crime when they start a fire, and feels certain that the Pioneer Hotel fire was started by an arsonist, and believes it was indeed Taylor that started that fire.

All these years later, though, he does remember in detail that the hallway where the fire started was 100 feet long and was fairly uniform: there was carpet on the floor that ran 18 inches up the wall and vinyl wallpaper up to the ceiling; every 15 feet there were wooden bats that separated the patterns on the wall paper. 

"When a fire start and spreads from a particular spot, the side of the wood that's facing the fire gets more damage," Holmes says. "And that was one of the means I used to determine that there were two separate means of origination to the fire and they were 60 feet apart." 

Holmes maintains that the fire could only have been started by an arsonist, and says the 60 Minutes investigation was biased, and was steered toward a predetermined conclusion from the start. 

"In 2002 when the CBS crew came out to interview me, they interviewed me for an hour," Holmes says. "None of that interview was used in that commentary. Maybe because it didn't fit what they wanted to show."

But all of the finger pointing and trials are behind Taylor, who now only needs to solve how he will spend the rest of his time as a free man. 

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen