A man convicted of starting Arizona’s deadly Pioneer Hotel fire in 1970 was freed from prison this week after spending more than 40 years behind bars.
The blaze, which raged through the hotel shortly after midnight on December 20, 1970, claimed the lives of 29 individuals — including entire families. Louis Taylor was just 16 years old when he was accused of setting the horrific fire. On Tuesday, Taylor left prison a free man after entering into a plea agreement with prosecutors.
The Pioneer Hotel fire is considered one of the deadliest in Arizona’s history. As flames tore through the structure, many guests became trapped on floors too high to be reached by rescue responders’ ladders.
Several guests plunged to their deaths from windows as they tried to escape, while others perished inside their rooms. Many of the guests reportedly fell victim to carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Louis Taylor, now 59, has continued to proclaim his innocence in the terrible tragedy. According to Taylor, who is African-American, race played a factor in his conviction.
He reportedly feels that an all-white jury unjustly convicted him of the crime after authorities declined to investigate additional suspects. After being found guilty, Taylor was handed 28 life sentences to be served consecutively.
The Arizona Justice Project eventually became involved and elements of Taylor’s conviction were questioned.
While prosecutors still believe Taylor is guilty, they contend that he would be difficult to convict at retrial because key evidence in the case no longer exists. In time, it was determined that a plea agreement was the best course of action.
However, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall stands behind the assertion that Taylor was dishonest about events on the night of the tragic Pioneer Hotel fire. In Superior Court documents filed on Monday, LaWall described some of the inconsistencies regarding Taylor’s account:
“… he was 16 years of age and had no legitimate reason to be at the hotel in those early morning hours…. When questioned first by hotel employees and later by police officers, Taylor gave inconsistent statements as to his reason for being at the hotel, admittedly lied that he had seen other persons actually start the fire, admitted that he had set fires in the past and ultimately denied culpability in the Pioneer fire.”
Paul D’hedouville II, whose father perished in the Pioneer Hotel fire, spoke during Tuesday’s court proceeding that finalized Taylor’s plea agreement:
“I harbor no feelings of ill will or vengeance against you, for my father is now gone and nothing can ever be done to change that fact. Do as you choose, Mr. Taylor, but choose wisely and do not waste your new beginning at life. The eyes of this courtroom and those beyond these walls, in mind and spirit, will be watching you.”
Do you agree with the court’s decision to accept Louis Taylor’s plea agreement? Do you think the man convicted of starting the deadly Pioneer Hotel fire should be set free after 40 years behind bars?
[Top image via Shutterstock]