August 12, 2013 12:00 PM

Louis Taylor would escape into the same dream each night. Gone was his bunk in some of the country’s roughest prisons; gone were the four concrete walls and steel door of his 10×12-ft. cell—replaced by a world he last knew before 1970, when he was a 16-year-old teen accused of setting a blaze at Tucson’s Pioneer Hotel that killed 29 people. In this fantasy world, Taylor got to mingle with his eight siblings and friends, go for a bike ride, enjoy a pizza. “When you’re in prison, you dream you’re out in society,” Taylor says. “But when you open your eyes, you see barbed-wire fences and tall walls.”

On April 2 Taylor finally saw his dream become a reality as he stepped through the gates of an Arizona state prison to freedom. His release made Taylor an instant celebrity on the streets of Tucson, where locals have long felt that an all-white jury wrongly convicted Taylor of setting the fire. “I never met anyone in Tucson who believed Taylor was guilty,” says Peggy Johnson, who covered the case during her two decades as a local PBS reporter. Still, Taylor’s stunning reversal of fortune is not cost-free. Though a panel of arson experts recently found no evidence that the fire had been set intentionally, prosecutors remained unwilling to exonerate Taylor, instead offering him freedom in exchange for a no-contest plea that makes future compensation from the state unlikely. Hesitating briefly, Taylor grabbed the deal: “There’s no money, place or thing that can replace 42 years,” he says. “I walked out with my head held high. I always knew I was innocent.”

The 11-story hotel had been teeming with more than 700 Christmas party guests in December 1970, when a fire broke out on the fourth floor. According to trial witnesses, as flames raced toward the top floor, Taylor rushed in and helped save several elderly guests and children. But police, who knew Taylor as a delinquent with a rap sheet that included burglary, hauled him down to the police station. After hours of questioning, they arrested him for arson, suspecting that he had set the fire to create a diversion so that he could burglarize guest rooms. “The whole thing was ridiculous from the beginning,” says Johnson. Though the arson findings by a local fire expert have since been debunked by advances in fire science, Pima County attorney Barbara LaWall remains convinced Taylor started the blaze. Her offer of a plea deal, she told PEOPLE, stemmed from concerns that “if a new trial were granted, we would be unable to go forward.” As for Taylor’s standing as a hero railroaded by a corrupt criminal-justice system, she says, “Well, that ain’t so.”

Initially Taylor refused the deal, saying he’d rather languish in prison than admit to a crime he hadn’t committed. But after an inmate in a neighboring cell died of a heroin overdose, Taylor had a change of heart. “I wasn’t going to let them take another minute.”

Life on the outside has taken some getting used to, said Andrew Hacker, his attorney with the Arizona Justice Project, which helped free Taylor and return him to his hometown of Tucson. When his attorneys took Taylor to a baseball game, he got lost in the crowd. “I looked down at the sea of heads,” says Taylor. “It was overwhelming. I just waited until they came and got me.” After that, when his attorneys took him to a Target to buy bifocals, “I stayed close so I wouldn’t get lost again.” Mastering his first cell phone has been such a challenge that learning how to use a computer is out of the question. “The world has become so much more complicated,” he says with a sigh.

Each day Taylor pedals his bike four miles to his job as a janitor at the Loft movie theater. When he returns home at night to his one-bedroom apartment, he cranks up his new stereo and plays the Doors and Simon & Garfunkel. Though his tunes are from a bygone era, his thinking is not. “I have to move forward,” he says. “Whatever life I have left, I have to take advantage of it.”

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