Arizona's Pioneer Hotel fire re-examined

Steve Kroft revisits the case of Louis Taylor, who may have been falsely accused and imprisoned for decades for setting a hotel fire in Tucson that killed 28

The following script is from "The Pioneer Hotel Fire" which aired on March 31, 2013. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. James Jacoby and Michael Karzis, producers.

The week before Christmas, back in 1970, an historic fire swept through an Arizona landmark, the Pioneer Hotel in downtown Tucson. Twenty-eight people were killed that night, some of whom were forced to jump to their deaths to avoid being burned alive in their rooms. It was front page news all over the country, and the following morning, a 16-year-old boy named Louis Taylor was charged with setting the fire and later convicted of 28 counts of murder.

The evidence was weak, and even the trial judge later admitted he would not have voted to convict. We 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. Taylor is still serving his life sentence, but new developments in fire science and new testimony from a key witness, may now change that and shed new light on a tragedy that's haunted Tucson for nearly 42 years.

Today, the Pioneer is a non-descript office building near the center of town. But behind the precast concrete slabs, you can still see the bones of the old hotel, built when Tucson was still a frontier outpost, and on December 19th 1970, it was still the heart of the city.

[Unidentified Man #1: Somebody's yelling, "Fire," over near the Pioneer Hotel.

Unidentified Man #2: Engine 1, 2, 3, Pioneer Hotel. Fire reported.]

When the first alarm sounded the hotel was packed with Christmas revelers. No one had noticed smoke on the upper floors. And by the time firemen arrived, it was already too late.

The Pioneer was a death trap: no sprinkler system, fire exits padlocked shut for security reasons, and the tallest ladder the fire department had reached only between the fourth and fifth floors.

Trapped hotel guests could be seen at the windows and on ledges. Some people tied sheets together and climbed to safety; others tossed mattresses out the window and died trying to land on them. As rescue teams fought their way up the stairwells, 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 fireman, 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.

David Smith: My conclusion was that Louis Taylor was evasive, and that he was involved in the incident.

Juvenile Detective David Smith was the last police officer to interrogate Louis Taylor. He said the boy was seen near the place where the fire started, had five partial packs of matches on him, and was unable to give a legitimate reason for being in the hotel. We interviewed Detective Smith back in 2002.

David Smith: I asked him, "Louis, did you set this fire?" And he said, "No, I didn't want to kill those people." Immediately there was a look of-- one of those looks of "I wished I hadn't have said that," or "I didn't mean to say that."

Historical photographs provided by Arizona Historical Society

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