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Firefighters Object to Parole of Arsonist in 23-Year-Old Crime

Times Staff Writer

The memory -- now nearly a quarter of a century old -- is enough to send Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Reagan to Sacramento this week to ask state prison officials to reverse their decision to grant parole to a convicted arsonist.

Reagan remembers that dark morning when he grabbed onto a collapsing roof and heard fellow firefighter Tom Taylor yelling for help from the other side.

“I could hear Tom screaming,” said Reagan, then a captain at Fire Station 60, which was battling the fire at Cugee’s Cafe in North Hollywood on Jan. 28, 1981. “I heard him yelling and screaming, that’s all I could hear.”

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County prosecutor Kenneth Barshop recalls the court testimony of firefighter Thomas Shrout recounting how he clasped Taylor’s outreached fingers that day but could not pull him onto the aerial ladder.

“He saw the look on Tom Taylor’s face, the look of sudden resignation as he dropped into the flames,” Barshop said. “He then burst into tears.”

Firefighter Jeff Taylor remembers walking into his firehouse that morning and being met by several grim-faced captains with news about his brother.

“They said he was lost. There was an accident and he was lost,” Taylor said. “I had to pointedly ask, ‘Is he dead or not?’ And they said, ‘Yes, he’s dead.’ ”

Thomas G. Taylor, 34 when he died, left behind sons Erik, 12, and Jason, 10.

On Tuesday, Tom Taylor’s brother, father and sons, along with Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre and Reagan, will lead a group to Sacramento to ask the Board of Prison Terms not to parole Mario Catanio, who set the fire at the cafe at the behest of owners trying to cash in on an insurance policy.

In March, a board commissioner and a deputy commissioner issued a decision finding Catanio suitable for parole. Pending no objections, the decision would be reviewed by the nine-member board before going to the governor’s office for approval.

But officials from the L.A. fire and police departments and the county district attorney’s office sought the hearing Tuesday, arguing that they were unable to voice their objections at the board’s earlier hearing because the meeting notification was sent to an incorrect address.

Catanio “should never get out,” said prosecutor Barshop. “Anybody who would sell their soul for $2,500 and disregards what happens is always a danger. That’s what Tom Taylor’s life cost.”

But Catanio’s attorney said his client had been a model inmate who over 23 years has transformed himself through education, work and rehabilitation programs.

“All these years he has stayed out of trouble; he has excellent psychological reports from counselors,” said Steve Defilippis. “He doesn’t present a danger to anyone.”

The attorney said L.A. fire and police authorities had not attended previous parole hearings, and objected this time only because of the board’s decision.

“It has that political aspect to it, of being a fireman who died, so there is, I think, a natural motivation to oppose parole that normally wouldn’t exist for this individual,” Defilippis said. “He’s entitled to a parole date, and to go home.”

Tom Taylor’s death continues to weigh heavily on those who survived the fire at the corner of Lankershim Boulevard and Weddington Street.

There are several reminders at Taylor’s old fire station. A bronze plaque in his honor was placed at the front of the station. There’s a portrait of him in the kitchen and several other photos around the firehouse. The newest aerial truck was dedicated to Taylor -- an apparatus operator who drove a ladder truck -- and his locker has been kept empty.

The owners of Cugee’s Cafe, Henry Martinez and Arlene Boyle, paid Van Nuys barber Mario Catanio, then 42, to set fire to their financially ailing restaurant. Martinez and Boyle pleaded guilty in federal court to arson homicide charges and received 10-year terms.

Catanio was convicted on state murder and burglary charges and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. When the cafe fire was reported about 3:30 a.m., the firefighters of Fire Station 60 had already been working 17 hours straight. Early in their shift, they participated in the filming of fire-safety drills, then at midnight battled a fire at a two-story apartment house.

It had been raining, and everyone’s turnout coats were soaking wet, Reagan recalled.

As soon as they got to the cafe, Tom Taylor, Coleman R. “Bud” Lawson and Burt Sander climbed to the roof to punch ventilation holes. Reagan joined them and began walking east to see whether the attic was contiguous, which would make it easier for the fire to spread.

“I had only gone a few steps when the roof sagged. Bud said, ‘Let’s get off!’ ” Reagan recalled. “Then the whole north side just dropped completely.”

Lawson managed to run to a ladder, propped up on a 6-foot wall, and climb to a sloping, corrugated-metal parapet.

Reagan grabbed an exposed conduit as Sander lunged for the ladder. Then Reagan leaped for the ladder and climbed over to the parapet.

By then, fellow firefighters had rescued Lawson on an aerial ladder and were trying to raise another so Reagan and Sander wouldn’t have to drop, but the ladder was too short.

“Our pants were all wet from the rain and the movie and the previous fire, so when the flames started hitting our turnout gear, it turned the moisture into steam,” Reagan said. “We were being burned.”

Holding on by his fingers, Reagan said, he yelled for the firefighters on the ground to hit him and Sander with streams of water to cool them down.

Sander dropped first, followed by Reagan moments later, landing 20 feet below on the wet street.

On the aerial ladder, Thomas Shrout lay on his stomach, straining to reach Taylor, who was clinging to the other side of the collapsing roof.

Shrout “had a real tough time with it. It was a horrible thing; he always felt he should have been able to get him up,” Reagan said. “But he would have needed super strength to pull up a guy who weighs 180 pounds by a wet glove.”

Seven firefighters were injured, including Sander, who broke his left arm, and Reagan, who suffered burns to his legs, hands, face and ears.

Jeff Taylor said he remembered Reagan trying to comfort him by relating the experiences of firefighters, including himself, who had come close to dying.

Although he doesn’t remember his exact words, Reagan said, he probably told him, “a real calm does come over you, and for a nanosecond, you think of your family and your kids. You put yourself in peace. I hope that’s what happened to Tom.”


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