Louis Taylor has been in jail since he was 16, convicted of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire in Tucson, Ariz., which claimed the lives of 28 people. Now, new information uncovered in an investigation by 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft raises questions about the guilt of the African American who is serving a life sentence.
Kroft’s report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, at 7 p.m. ET/PT. An expanded one-hour report will be broadcast on Court TV’s “The System” Wednesday, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Taylor, now 47, maintains the all-white jury erred in convicting him. New information the jury never heard points to other suspects who were never investigated. Police also failed to follow up on the fact the hotel had experienced several fires that had been intentionally set in the months before the fatal blaze. Hotel employees even mentioned a suspicious person whose description did not match Taylor’s.
Based on the information developed by 60 Minutes and Court TV, the Arizona Justice Project, an organization of lawyers, investigators and law students, has begun looking into Taylor’s case.
Among the questions raised by the investigation is why a young man whom authorities described as a “pyromaniac” and had been questioned in connection with another fire five days before the fatal Pioneer blaze, left town when fire inspectors sought to question him about the Pioneer fire. That person, Donald Anthony, is now in prison. He admitted three years after the Pioneer fire that he had committed eight arsons, including a fire set a few blocks from the Pioneer Hotel two months before the hotel fire. Anthony refused to be interviewed and denies he set the Pioneer fire.
Former Tucson Detective David Smith claims Anthony was what he called a vanity fire setter. “They are always on the scene,” Smith tells Kroft. “Oftentimes, they are the ones who report the fire.” Smith, who arrested and charged Taylor with 28 counts of murder, believes Taylor started the fire to create a diversion so he could burglarize hotel rooms. “There was never any information indicating that anybody else but Louis Taylor was there acting suspiciously,” says Smith.
But some witnesses say there was a suspicious person at the fire, a fact police never investigated. A hotel guest that night reported seeing a man directing firefighters with a bullhorn whose presence was so disruptive he was physically removed from the scene. The witness wrote a letter objecting to the fact this person wasn’t investigated and sent it to the Tucson City attorney, who forwarded it to the Fire Department with a note undermining its significance.
Arizona policy prohibits in-person media interviews, but Taylor speaks in a phone interview from prison. “The evidence is so frivolous that I thought for a while that maybe they’d find me not guilty, but unfortunately, I fell into the cracks,” says Taylor.
Taylor says he was’t given a lawyer until the morning after a night of questioning by at least eight different police officers. To this day, some maintain he was a hero that night, helping a police officer who fell during the fire and also knocking on doors to alert sleeping guests to the danger.
Taylor says he was at the fire that night to try to get free food and drinks at a big Hughes Aircraft Christmas party, and that he became a convenient scapegoat for the worst disaster in Tucson history. “I guess they just had me, so [the authorities said to themselves] we’ll try to get a conviction. So they did.”
Taylor’s legal appeals are exhausted. He refuses to apply for parole because he would have to express remorse for a crime he says he did not commit.