Arsonist in deadly Ariz. fire to be released after 40-plus years
TUCSON — A man who has spent more than four decades in prison for a Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 people, including some who jumped from windows to escape the searing heat, is expected to be released on Tuesday as part of a deal with prosecutors.
Louis Cuen Taylor of Tucson was convicted of murder as a teen but has maintained his innocence in the December 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel.
He is scheduled to plead no contest to murder in an agreement that sets aside his original conviction and gives him credit for time served, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
The fire occurred during a Christmas party for employees of an aircraft company and left guests trapped in their rooms.
The building had no sprink-ler system, exits were locked to prevent theft, and fire truck ladders were too short to reach the higher floors. Those factors led some people to jump from windows to their deaths. Others burned to death in their rooms. Most died of carbon-monoxide poisoning while waiting for rescue.
In total, 29 lives were lost to the blaze, including one victim who died months later in a hospital.
Taylor was in the hotel that night watching the festivities. After the fire broke out, he and a hotel custodian tried to extinguish the blaze, then Taylor helped some of the trapped and injured guests escape. Hours later, he was taken into custody, interviewed by police without parental consent and charged with starting the fire. He was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to 28 concurrent life terms.
Judge Charles L. Hardy, who presided over Taylor's 1972 trial, publicly expressed skepticism about the jury's decision to convict the Tucson teen. In one letter he sent Taylor in the early 1980s, the judge, who died in December 2010, said he was negotiating with Arizona lawmakers to have the sentence commuted, but the deal was predicated on Taylor admitting guilt, which he refused to do.
Michael Piccarreta, one of the Arizona Justice Project lawyers advocating on behalf of Taylor, said Taylor maintains his innocence but will plead no contest as a way of getting out of prison quickly. Project attorneys said several defense experts, using modern forensic fire science, would testify they would not have ruled the blaze arson.