Warning: This story contains a graphic description of the attack.
RIVER NORTH — The Melrose Park man accused of dousing the person known as the “Walking Man” with gasoline and setting him on fire as he slept on Lower Wabash Avenue showed “a special kind of evil” when he staged his unprovoked attack, prosecutors told a judge Monday.
Joseph Guardia, 27, didn’t know Joseph Kromelis or have any history with the 75-year-old when he stood over him and set him on fire. It happened at 3 a.m. Wednesday at 401 North Lower Wabash Avenue, and was captured on Trump Tower surveillance cameras, Assistant State’s Attorney Danny Hanichak said during Guardia’s bond hearing.
After he was arrested, Guardia admitted he set the fire, but said he thought he was just burning a pile of blankets, Hanichak said. But the prosecutor said Guardia stood over Kromelis for 16 seconds as he slept under blankets. His legs from the knees down were exposed and his faced appeared to not be covered either, Hanichak said.
“His statement that he didn’t know a person was there is outrageous and is a lie,” Hanichak said.
Video shows Guardia pouring an extra large McDonald’s cup filled with gasoline over Kromelis, igniting it with a lighter and then running away. He was seen on multiple security cameras, including as he took a Blue Line train and a Pace bus to get to his mother’s Melrose Park home, the prosecutor said.
Kromelis, known as the “Walking Man” because he constantly walked Downtown streets no matter the season, was burned over 50 percent of his body, Hanichak said. He is currently sedated at Stroger Hospital with “non-survivable injuries,” the prosecutor said.
“The facts of this case show it takes a special kind of evil to do what the defendant did,” Hanichak said. “This defendant chose to pour gasoline on a human being and then set him on fire, leaving him to burn alive for three minutes. One can only imagine the pain and suffering the victim experienced for those three minutes.
“This defendant did not target someone he had an argument with, someone who wronged him or someone he even knew. This defendant decided to target the most vulnerable person possible — a 75-year-old homeless man sleeping in the street,” Hanichak said. “In 16 years of prosecuting cases, I’ve never seen a video so horrific. While this is currently charged as a tortuous attempted first degree murder, based on the prognosis of doctors treating this victim, but for a miracle, this will soon be a first degree murder case.”
Guardia is charged with attempted murder and arson. At the end of Monday’s hearing, Cook County Judge Charles Beach ordered him held without bail.
“The random and callous nature of your attack is horrifying,” the judge said.
Guardia was arrested Friday after multiple people called police after recognizing him in surveillance photos released by police. Guardia has a dollar sign tattooed on his right cheek that could be seen on video. He also wore a distinctive, black and white “Hoodrich” hoody that he was still wearing when arrested, Hanichak said.
One of the people who identified him to police is a Melrose Park police officer who has known Guardia since childhood, the prosecutor said.
Guardia is a Proviso West High School grad who has been out of work for the past year.
After his arrest, in a videotaped statement he told investigators he found the cup of gas in the garbage and wanted to set something on fire, Hanichak said.
“He said he was angry person and decided he was going to set something on fire,” Hanichak said. “He said he was going to burn some trash. He said he poured the gas onto some blankets and used a lighter to set them on fire then ran. The defendant claimed he did not know a person was there. The defendant did not provide a specific motive other than being an angry person.”
The famed “Walking Man” treks the streets of Downtown with flowing gray hair, a distinctive mustache and a steady stride. He’s well known to Downtown regulars, and has been the subject of countless photos of people who recognize him.
He was also attacked in 2016 on Lower Wacker Drive. Police said someone with a baseball bat struck him, leaving him hospitalized.