|By Enric Volante, The Arizona Daily Star,
TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Oct. 8, 2006 - The Tucson teenager accused of setting the disastrous Pioneer Hotel fire that took 29 lives has spent most of his life in prison insisting he was innocent.
Now, nearly 35 years after Louis C. Taylor was locked away for life in an Arizona prison, new scientific knowledge of how fire behaves is raising questions about whether Tucson's worst disaster stemmed from arson at all.
One former insurance-company investigator who sifted through the charred ruins in 1970 recently told the Arizona Daily Star that he and another fire investigator were like members of "a black magic society" that in those days relied on untested assumptions about what indicated arson.
"I came to this opinion some time ago that neither one of us had any business identifying that fire as arson," said Marshall Smyth, a Tucson mechanical engineer.
Without that testimony, he said, "this fellow wouldn't have been convicted."
Fire investigation underwent a revolution in the last 10 years as long-held assumptions about how to prove arson have been debunked by scientific tests. The fire-investigation industry has grappled to rewrite its guidelines as investigators realized that natural fires can mimic arson. That has brought some old criminal cases under new scrutiny.
Last May, a team of five unpaid arson experts, including Tucson fire investigator David M. Smith, reviewed two Texas cases and concluded both men were convicted on faulty forensic analysis. The state convicted one, Cameron Todd Willingham, of arson murder in 1992 and executed him in 2004.
The team prepared its 44-page analysis at the request of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group of attorneys, investigators and law students.
Now a similar group known as the Arizona Justice Project, encouraged by the Texas report, is preparing a court petition on Taylor's behalf to re-examine the Pioneer fire.
People on lower floors escaped
The tragedy began to unfold around midnight on Dec. 20, 1970.
The landmark Downtown hotel on the northeast corner of Stone Avenue and Pennington Street was packed with guests visiting to shop or celebrate the holidays. Many were prominent citizens from Arizona and Sonora.
At a party on the ground floor, bandleader Louis Leon and other musicians caught the faint smell of burning. They thought the wires to their sound equipment must be overheating. Then the catering manager approached with a terse message:
"Louis, get them the hell out of here. The place is on fire."
Leon recalled recently that guests filed out in an orderly manner. The bandleader went outside to move his car and looked up. "You could see the flames coming out of the hotel windows," he said. "Boy, that was really a nightmare."
Old photos, interviews with witnesses and newspaper accounts paint a black picture of that night.
A few guests clambered down a fire-escape tower. But acrid smoke and withering heat -- fueled mainly by the synthetic carpet that covered the floors and lower walls of the hallways -- spread rapidly through the top eight floors of the 11-story building and trapped others.
As firefighters raced to the hotel, they listened to radio reports of people leaping from windows near Alameda Street.
One woman clung to a pipe outside her window.
Some guests threw mattresses out windows, then jumped, only to be crushed against the pavement.
Up in Room 722, a mother and her five children perished.
On the ninth floor, a gray-haired woman leaned out of a window at the rear of the hotel. She yelled again and again to firefighters.
"I'm still here! My God, I'm still here!
Minutes later, she plunged to her death.
On the 10th floor, a 31-year-old attorney, Paul E. d'Hedouville, died from carbon-monoxide fumes in his windowless room.
Businessman Harold Steinfeld, who had owned the hotel since 1929, and his wife, Peggy, were in their penthouse suite on the 11th floor.
"My husband talked to them (by phone) that night," the Steinfelds' niece, Bettina Lyons, recalled last week. "They said everything was fine, not to worry, the fire would be put out. They had heard from the desk downstairs that if they needed to, they'd come and get them."
After rescuers battled their way to the penthouse, one announced by radio: "We think we have Mr. and Mrs. Steinfeld."
"Are Mr. and Mrs. Steinfeld OK?" a dispatcher asked.
"Negative," came the reply.
The couple, overcome by smoke, and 26 other people died. Another woman died months later of her injuries, bringing the toll to 29.
The tragedy tore the hearts of families on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
"Here were two perfectly healthy, vital, active people who lost their lives," Lyons said of her relatives.
"It was a long time ago," yet "it's hard to have it all brought up all over again."
Lyons and two others who lost loved ones to the fire declined to comment on Taylor's planned court petition.
The hotel "never recovered again. Even though they put money into it and put sprinkler systems in, people did not come to stay," Lyons said.
"And because the Pioneer Hotel was lost, all the people who came to shop Downtown did not come there. And one by one the stores began to die. So I would say it had an enormous effect on Downtown and the community. It probably changed it irreparably. And it's still struggling."
Police arrested Taylor, then a 16-year-old who says he went to the ballroom to try to hustle free drinks and food, later that day.
No one saw him set the fire. But a hotel employee saw him in a stairwell looking up at the flames and mentioned him to police. Other witnesses said he was one of that night's heroes, helping to evacuate the hotel. Officers questioned him and arrested him later that day.
A few days later the city hired Cyrillis W. Holmes Jr., a highly experienced fire investigator from California, to independently determine how and where the fire started.
Like an archaeologist digging for fragile artifacts, Holmes sifted through the ash and debris when he arrived 10 days after the fire.
He found no tangible evidence of how someone may have set the fire -- no detectable residue of lighter fluid or gasoline, no burned matchsticks, no singed remnants of crumpled paper, not even a metal staple from a matchbook.
But by plunging his pocketknife into doorjambs and other things to determine the depth of charring, and by looking at burn patterns and other signs, Holmes concluded fires were set in at least two places about 60 feet apart in the fourth-floor hallways.
Holmes testified he thought the fire setter or setters used something like a lit match or burning piece of paper, perhaps with a small amount of flammable liquid to ignite the two areas within a few minutes of each other, trial transcripts show.
He said a third fire may have been set by someone on the stairs just below the fourth floor or it may have been started by falling embers from the other fire.
Multiple hallway fires meant arson, he told jurors.
Prosecutors argued that Taylor, whose juvenile-court record included theft, set the fires as a diversion so he could steal from guest rooms.
A jury convicted him of 28 counts of first-degree murder.
Fifteen years after the Pioneer tragedy, the National Fire Protection Association Standards Council published a guide that began a movement toward scientific principles. But fire investigators resisted the new principles through most of the 1990s, according to the arson review committee's report.
One relatively new understanding about fires that has gradually taken hold involves the phenomenon of "flashover," fire experts say.
Hot fire gases build up near the ceiling until a virtual explosion ignites surfaces throughout the room.
Flashover can make it look like a fire was set at more than one point. It can also mimic burn patterns that fire investigators used to attribute to an arsonist splashing around flammable liquid.
In 1987, a flashover defense helped free Mesa resident John Henry Knapp shortly before Arizona was to execute him in the fire death of his daughters. He later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge and went free.
In 1990, a Prescott man who served eight years in prison won a new trial in the arson death of his wife and child. Ray Girdler Jr. went free after his attorneys argued that fire officials had misinterpreted effects of flashover as evidence of arson.
Phoenix attorney Larry Hammond, who represented Knapp and Girdler, now works for Louis Taylor in the Pioneer case.
Three years ago, an investigative report by the CBS News show "60 Minutes" focused on whether police failed to catch the real arsonist when they arrested Taylor.
"My view always was that if you looked at the evidence ... it was consistent with a fire of innocent origin," Hammond said recently. "There was no arson at all."
But Holmes, the key witness who established arson for the prosecution, says that's dead wrong.
Still consulting in fire investigations, Holmes said recently that today's advancements in fire science would not have changed his conclusions at the Pioneer Hotel because he used scientific techniques long before they became accepted by the rest of the industry.
"As far as I'm concerned, the facts today are the same as they were then," he said.
Taylor, speaking by phone from the state prison near Buckeye, said that given the new fire science the state should re-examine the Pioneer fire if only to achieve justice "for all the poor souls that died in there."
He recalled that over the years others -- including his former trial judge -- advised him to seek a reduced sentence. But one condition was that he admit guilt and show remorse.
"I told them I'd rather die in prison," Taylor said.
"They said that the fire was man-caused, supposedly they established that, but the thing about it is they don't know how the fire was started," Taylor said.
"So how was it justified for them to even use the books of matches against me at trial?"
Matches in jacket suspicious
One of the arson experts who served on the committee that debunked the arson findings in Texas is David M. Smith -- the former Tucson police officer who arrested Taylor in 1970.
Smith was a 23-year-old detective newly assigned to juvenile crime when the state's biggest murder case fell in his lap. He went on to become a leading private consultant in fire investigation and today helps write the industry's scientific standards.
The former police officer still thinks he arrested the right guy and that Taylor had some culpability in the fatal fire.
Smith cited Taylor's demeanor, suspicious or conflicting statements and several matchbooks that Taylor had hidden on him. Smith said he believes two accomplices escaped arrest because Taylor wouldn't cooperate.
Taylor said the way police twisted his unrecorded statements was "mind-boggling." He said he had matches on him because he had borrowed his brother's jacket, which had matches in the pockets. He denied knowing who set the fire.
His former attorney had argued that Taylor's statements to police shouldn't have been used because he was diagnosed as having the intelligence and common sense of a 12-year-old.
The same panel that reviewed the Texas arson cases is considering whether to examine the Tucson fire, although Smith said he would bow out to avoid a conflict as Taylor's arresting officer.
Would he change his mind about Taylor's guilt if the panel finds the old arson investigation doesn't hold up?
"I'd have to," he said. "If you don't have a crime, you don't have an arrest."
Smyth, the former insurance investigator and engineer, was asked by Taylor's defense to testify at the trial that he found only one point of fire origin.
He said recently he's not so sure it wasn't arson.
However, "I'm very sure that neither Cy Holmes nor I should have or could have said that it was arson at the time that we did," Smyth said.
"If that fire were to occur again today, there's no way,
there's no way anyone could prove it was arson."
--1929: The hotel opens and weathers the stock-market crash to become the center of Downtown life.
--1970: Fire kills 28 men, women and children and fatally injures a 29th person.
--1972: A jury finds Louis C. Taylor guilt of 28 counts of first-degree murder and arson. He launches a series of appeals.
--1974: The remodeled hotel closes and is later rebuilt as office space.
--1982: An appeals court overturns Taylor's convictions, saying his statements to police should not have been admitted as evidence.
--1983: The U.S. Supreme Court reinstates the convictions.
--2003: A "60 Minutes" TV report questions whether police arrested the right person.
--2006: The Arizona Justice Project prepares a court petition seeking to re-examine whether the fire resulted from arson.
Contact reporter Enric Volante at 573-4129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson
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