Joseph Guardia, the man who police say set a well-known homeless man on fire in River North last week, has been wanted by authorities since February 2021 when he stopped showing up in court for two felony burglary cases in the suburbs, court records show.
Guardia is the 22nd person accused of killing or shooting — or trying to shoot or kill — someone in Chicago this year while awaiting trial for a felony. The alleged crimes involve at least 50 victims, 11 of whom died.
Joseph Kromelis, 75, was on fire for about three minutes before security guards extinguished the flames, Assistant State’s Attorney Danny Hanichak said. Hanichak, a prosecutor for 16 years, told Judge Charles Beach he had never seen video footage as horrific as the attack on Kromelis. Doctors believe Kromelis’ injuries are not survivable, he said.
Beach ordered Guardia, 27, held without bail on charges of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated arson causing bodily harm.
“But for a miracle, this will soon be a first-degree murder case,” Hanichak told the judge.
Police pieced together footage from a string of surveillance cameras stretching from Trump Tower to O’Hare to Melrose Park as they tracked Guardia’s movements before and after the attack, Hanichak said. Throughout the footage, Guardia wore the same distinctive black and white Hoodrich-brand outfit the attacker wore. A dollar-sign tattoo on Guardia’s face is also visible in some of the footage, Hanichak said.
He said Trump Tower surveillance video showed Kromelis sleeping on the lower level of Wabash Avenue with his head and other extremities sticking out of blankets just before 3 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25. Guardia, carrying a McDonald’s cup, was seen walking near Rush and Hubbard streets about 10 minutes before the fire.
Other footage shows Guardia walking into the lower level of Wabash and standing over Kromelis for about 16 seconds as the 75-year-old slept, according to Hanichak. There was no apparent interaction between the men before Guardia poured liquid, believed to be gasoline, from the McDonald’s cup,onto Kromelis’ head and lit it on fire, Hanichak continued.
Guardia allegedly ran away as Kromelis, with his head and upper body engulfed in flames, thrashed around. The fire spread to engulf his entire upper body. He eventually collapsed against a wall while still on fire “moving less and less,” Hanichak said.
Nearly three minutes after the fire started, Trump Tower security guards saw the flames and extinguished the fire. They tried to comfort Kromelis while waiting for first responders.
Investigators recovered a McDonald’s cup at the scene. It is being tested at the state crime lab.
After running from the allegedly scene, Guardia took a Blue Line train to O’Hare, then rode an inbound train to Forest Park before continuing to Melrose Park on a Pace bus, according Hanichak.
Detectives shared CTA surveillance images with the public on Wednesday night and a Melrose Park police officer who has known Guardia since childhood immediately identified him, Hanichak said. In fact, the suburban cop also works security at a plasma center and he remembered seeing Guardia at the clinic wearing the same Hoodrich outfit that day and three days earlier. Surveillance footage from the plasma center allegedly confirms the cops’ recollections.
Police arrested Guardia in Melrose Park after someone familiar with CPD’s “wanted” bulletin called 911 upon seeing him in public.
During an interview with police, Guardia said he found the McDonald’s cup filled with gasoline and decided to set something on fire because he’s “an angry person,” according to Hanichak. Guardia claimed he set blankets on fire and didn’t know a person was under them.
Hanichak called that claim a lie.
“It takes a special kind of evil to do what this defendant did,” Hanichak said. “Leaving him to burn alive for three minutes.”
A public defender said Guardia lives with his mother and has been looking for work.
His previous felony convictions include a 2018 retail theft and a robbery case in DuPage County, according to Hanichak.
Hanichak said doctors tranferred Kromelis from Northwestern Memorial Hospital to Stroger Hospital. He is sedated with severe burns over more than 50% of his body and is not expected to survive.
AWOL for 15 months
On March 14, 2020, prosecutors charged Guardia with burglary and identity theft, both felonies, for crimes allegedly committed in suburban Melrose Park. Judge Arthur Willis released Guardia on his own recognizance the same day.
But just six days later, prosecutors charged Guardia with committing another burglary in suburban Bellwood. Judge Ramon Ocasio gave him a recognizance bond on the new charges, but ordered him held without bail for violating his release conditions in the Melrose Park case, records show.
On April 2, Judge Gregory Vazquez nixed the no-bail hold and allowed Guardia to go home by posting a bail deposit of $500.
Guardia then failed to appear in court for a hearing in the burglary cases on February 26, 2021 and Ocasio signed two arrest warrants, according to court records. But authorities never tracked Guardia down and he remained on the loose until police arrested him Friday for allegedly setting Kromelis on fire.
The “not horrible” series
This report continues our coverage of individuals accused of killing, shooting, or trying to kill or shoot others while on bond for a pending felony case. CWBChicago began our series of reports in November 2019 after Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans publicly stated, “we haven’t had any horrible incidents occur” under the court’s bond reform initiative.
The actual number of murders and shootings committed by people on felony bail is undoubtedly much higher than the numbers seen here. Since 2017, CPD has made arrests in less than 5% of non-fatal shootings and 33% of murders, according to the city’s data. You can support CWBChicago’s work by becoming a subscriber today.