Phoenix-- An emotional Louis Taylor, accused of setting a hotel fire in downtown Tucson, Ariz., that killed 29 people, said Wednesday that he felt a rush of emotions after his release from custody after more than 42 years.
Taylor, then 16, had maintained his innocence from that first night in December 1970 when he helped carry injured guests to safety. But just after the rescues, he was taken into custody for six hours of questioning. Eventually, he was charged with 28 counts of murder and was convicted in March 1972. He spent the next 41 years in prison.
"It's a little kind of overwhelming," he said. "But I'm free. That's the most important thing."
Then Taylor, who is now 59, started crying, one of several times his emotions got the better of him while meeting with reporters at the office here of one of the lawyers who worked with the Arizona Justice Project for his release Tuesday from a Tucson prison.
Taylor said his first stop as a free man was an In-N-Out Burger, where employees gave him a T-shirt. He then took a sunset hike along Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson before heading the 120 miles or so to Phoenix.
Wednesday morning, after spending the night at a friend's house here, he cooked bacon and eggs. Taylor said that cooking his own breakfast upon his release was one of the activities he looked forward to doing.
Food was what drew him to the Pioneer International Hotel in Tucson in December 1970. Though authorities at the time said Taylor could not give police a good reason why he was at the hotel, Taylor said Wednesday that he had been there to attend Christmas parties and get free drinks and food.
Even though that decision led to imprisonment for much of his adulthood, Taylor said he was glad he was at the Pioneer the night it caught fire.
"I'm glad I went there because I saved a lot of people there," he said.
Employees told police that Taylor helped lead out children and senior citizens. One woman said she took the elevator up and down at least nine times and each time the door opened Taylor was escorting people inside, never once taking the elevator himself.
Taylor was freed Tuesday after a Tucson court hearing where he pleaded no contest to 28 counts of murder and the judge sentenced him to time served. Taylor never was charged in the death of the 29th victim, a woman who died months later from fire-related injuries.
His lawyers told the judge Tuesday that new methods of investigation developed since Taylor's original conviction show no evidence of arson as the cause of the fire.
Taylor's case was featured nationally Sunday on 60 Minutes. The CBS news magazine had raised questions about his case in a story that aired in 2002. That story attracted the attention of the Arizona Justice Project, whose volunteer lawyers have worked since to free Taylor.
Taylor said he felt sorry after hearing one man talk in court Tuesday about losing his father in the fire.
"I wanted to hug that guy," Taylor said. "But my lawyers told me (to) just maintain."
Taylor, who entered prison as a grade-school dropout, said he educated himself behind bars and became a medical technician. He was hoping to land a job but was unsure where he would live. Lawyers with the Arizona Justice Project arranged housing for him here.
Noel Fidel, a lawyer who volunteered his time on the case, said his fellow volunteers now are helping Taylor re-acclimate.
"There aren't a lot of lawyers who are experts in life planning," Fidel said following the news conference. "We want to try to get him situated, and we'll always be in touch."
Taylor said he has hardly any family left. A niece sat among reporters Wednesday and introduced herself to Taylor for the first time after the news conference.
"I lost almost all my family except for two people," he said.
Taylor's twin sister drank herself to death after his conviction, he said. She was found by the side of a road, and that is among the painful memories that keep him resistant to the idea of living in the city where he grew up.
Taylor admitted that he was not a model inmate. He amassed several disciplinary actions while in prison and was held in maximum security. His no contest plea got him released from prison immediately but means he remains a convicted felon.
"I'm no angel," he said. "You grow up in prison. You get a lot of bad habits. But I'm all right."
Taylor said he was undaunted by what lays ahead.
"Nothing really scares me," he said. "All I can do is just go forward, and I'm going to try to do the best that I can."