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Man accused of setting “Walking Man” on fire denied bail; prosecutors say victim not expected to survive

CHICAGO (CBS) — A Melrose Park man accused of setting a homeless man known as “The Walking Man” on fire was ordered held without bail on Monday, as Cook County prosecutors said he is not expected to survive.

Joseph Guardia, 27, is charged with aggravated arson and attempted murder in the attack in the early morning hours of last Wednesday on Lower Wabash Avenue near Trump Tower.

“It takes a special kind of evil to do what the defendant did,” a Cook County prosecutor said at Guardia’s bond hearing Monday afternoon.

Cook County prosecutors said 75-year-old Joseph Kromelis was sleeping on the apron of a parking garage on the 400 block of North Wabash Avenue around 3 on the last Wednesday, when Guardia walked past him, holding a cup of gasoline in his hand.

After first walking past Kromelis to the intersection of Kinzie Street and Wabash Avenue, prosecutors said Guardi then walked back to where Kromelis was sleeping, poured the gasoline on his head, and lit him on fire.

The flames quickly spread to Kromelis’ entire upper body, and he was on fire for approximately three minutes before a security officer from a nearby building was able to get a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.

“One can only imagine the suffering the victim experienced,” prosecutors said.

Kromelis was first taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and later transferred to Stroger Hospital of Cook County, where he remains under sedation as of Monday afternoon, according to prosecutors. Doctors have said his injuries are so severe that he is not expected to survive.

“But for a miracle, this will soon be a first-degree murder case,” prosecutors said.

Known for his signature long hair, and mustache, and often seen wearing a sport coat, Kromelis is affectionately called “The Walking Man” by Chicagoans who have seen him frequently roaming the city’s streets for decades.

Prosecutors said the attack on Kromelis was caught on surveillance video, and Guardia was seen fleeing the scene after the attack, and later boarding Blue Line train, which he rode to O’Hare International Airport, before riding to the other end of the line in Forest Park, where he boarded a Pace bus to Melrose Park.

After police released a bulletin about the attack with pictures of Guardia, a Melrose Park police officer who knew Guardia from their time as children recognized him, and called Chicago police to tell them Guardia was known to frequent a local plasma center.

Two days after the attack on Kromelis, another person in Melrose Park spotted Guardia and recognized him from the bulletin, and called 911. Guardia was later arrested while wearing the same clothes he wore at the time of the attack.

Prosecutors said, when he was questioned by police, Guardia identified himself on the surveillance footage of the attack, and siad he found the cup of gasoline and decided he was going to set something on fire, because he is an “angry person,” but denied knowing Kromelis was sleeping under the blanket when he poured the gasoline and lit it on fire.

However, prosecutors said that claim was “outrageous and a lie,” saying that Kromelis’ head and legs were clearly visible sticking out from under the blanket he had covered himself with as he slept that night.

“This defendant decided to target the most vulnerable person possible, a 75-year-old homeless man sleeping on the street,” prosecutors said.

In ordering Guardia held without bail, a Cook County judge called the attack “exceptionally brutal and heinous,” adding Guardia showed a “cold disregard for the sanctity of human life.”

At the time of the attack the Guardia had two outstanding arrest warrants on burglary and identity theft charges out of Maywood.

He also has two prior felony convictions; one on retail theft and robbery charges, the other on charges of battery and resisting police.

Guardia is due back in court on June 6 at the Skokie Courthouse.

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