After 42 years behind bars, suspect in deadly Ariz. hotel fire freed

Louis Taylor pleads "no contest" to 28 counts of murder as part of a plea deal to free him 42 years in prison for deadly Tucson hotel fire. CBS

Updated 2:50 p.m. ET

PHOENIXA man who has spent more than 40 years in prison for a 1970 hotel fire that killed 29 people agreed to a deal with prosecutors Tuesday that cleared the way for him to be released after his conviction was called into question.

Late Tuesday, Louis Taylor was freed from prison after spending 42 years behind bars. A press conference is scheduled for Wed.

Louis Taylor pleads "no contest" to 28 counts of murder as part of a plea deal to free him 42 years in prison for deadly Tucson hotel fire.
CBS

The plea deal marks a stunning reversal for Louis Taylor, who was 16 years old when he was arrested in the fire at the Pioneer Hotel, where employees of an aircraft company were celebrating at a Christmas party. He is expected to be set free later Tuesday or Wednesday once his paperwork is processed.

Taylor, 59, showed no visible reaction as he accepted the deal and said "no contest" 28 different times — for each murder count leveled against him. When it was all finished, Superior Court Judge Richard Fields said, "Welcome back, Mr. Taylor."

Taylor was sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences and repeatedly has maintained his innocence. Taylor, who is black, contends he was wrongly convicted by an all-white jury after he says police failed to investigate other suspects.

Prosecutors still believe that Taylor is guilty, but said they would not be able to pursue a new trial due to a lack of evidence and living witnesses.

Taylor did not speak in court on his own behalf and had no statement. A news conference was scheduled for Wednesday.

The hearing was marked by dramatic testimony from a Washington, D.C., man who was 4 years old when his father was killed in the fire at the age of 31. Paul d'Hedouville II said his father was staying at the hotel and waiting for his family to arrive for a Christmas vacation, with gifts in his suite.

"Instead, my father was buried on Christmas Eve 1970," d'Hedouville said.

He lamented how his father was never there to teach him how to ride a bike or see his soccer games. "He was never able to dance with my bride at my wedding," d'Hedouville said.

He did not address questions of Taylor's guilt as he looked directly at the inmate and said, "Do as you choose Mr. Taylor. But choose wisely. Do not waste your new beginning."

"I harbor no feelings of ill will or vengeance against you."

Defense attorney Michael Piccarreta said this weekend that Taylor still maintains his innocence but wanted to plead no contest Tuesday to get out of prison quickly. Piccarreta said Taylor's lawyers believe they would have eventually prevailed at a new trial, but the process could have taken a long time.

The plea also negates Taylor's ability to sue the state to seek compensation — something that could have only happened if he had gotten a new trial and been exonerated. That process could have taken two to three years.

"It's a question of freedom now versus freedom three years from now," said attorney Ed Novak.

The 1970 blaze was one of the worst in Arizona history.

"60 Minutes" first looked into the case back in 2002, along with Court TV, and found evidence that the 16-year-old had been railroaded; a convenient suspect for police and prosecutors eager to resolve the city's worst disaster. There was also evidence the fire may not have been arson.
(Watch the full, updated report on the Pioneer Hotel fire by Steve Kroft for "60 Minutes" at left.)

As rescue teams fought their way up the stairwells after the fire was first reported, they encountered 16-year-old Louis Taylor on the third floor landing. Police officer Bill Briamonte put the boy to work.

Bill Briamonte: "I said, 'Come with me. There's a fire in this building. Start banging on doors,' and I sent him to the left, and I went to the right."

To many firemen, Louis Taylor was a hero that night. But the police weren't looking for a hero. While the fire was still smoldering, and before the fire department even had time to begin an investigation into the cause, the police department decided it had the answer: Louis Taylor. One officer who had been with the boy during the fire, went up to thank him a few hours later at police headquarters only to be told to stay away - that Taylor had set the fire.

The officer, Klaus Bergman, said he was dumbfounded.

Klaus Bergman: I don't know how in God's name somebody could declare a fire to be an arson, and arrest and book somebody for setting the fire before the fire is out.

Louis Taylor had voluntarily gone to police headquarters as a witness, but after an all-night interrogation by eight different police officers without a lawyer or a guardian present, Taylor had gone from cooperative witness to prime suspect.

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