Prosecutors in ‘Walking Man’ case seek to discuss prior attack

Prosecutors in the murder case involving a beloved Chicago character known as “the Walking Man” are asking to present evidence that the defendant who allegedly doused Joseph Kromelis with gasoline had thrown liquid on a CTA train operator two weeks earlier.

Joseph Guardia, 29, is facing charges of murder and aggravated arson in connection with the attack on Kromelis, who died months after being set on fire on May 25, 2022, while sleeping under blankets on the street.

On May 10, records show, a CTA operator reported that a young man had tossed liquid on him after asking a question about a train stop. The attack at the Oak Park Green Line station was captured on video, and court records show the operator later picked Guardia out of a photo lineup.

Prosecutors did not charge Guardia in the CTA incident. But the state’s attorney’s office is seeking to use evidence of his alleged involvement to help prove intent or state of mind in the later attack against Kromelis, according to a recent court filing.

Prosecutors argued in their motion that both crimes have “peculiar and distinctive features not shared by most offenses of the same type and which, therefore, earmarks the offenses as (one) person’s handiwork.”

Kromelis, a distinctively dapper dresser often seen strolling alone along the streets of downtown Chicago, was attacked while he slept on the pavement in the 400 block of North Lower Wabash Avenue. He died several months later at age 75.

The haunting crime was captured on video by a nearby hotel security surveillance system. Authorities released video stills of Kromelis’ attacker, who had a large dollar sign tattooed on his cheek, and police arrested Guardia two days later. At the time of his arrest, authorities said, Guardia was wearing the same clothing seen in the video.

Guardia, of Melrose Park, told police in a recorded interview that he had found a cup filled with gasoline and set a pile of blankets on fire, according to court records. Guardia said he was not aware that a person was under the blankets, but prosecutors said Kromelis’ head and lower legs were visible.

As for motive, Guardia said only that he was “an angry person.”

In their court filing, prosecutors are seeking to admit the circumstances of the CTA encounter as evidence in the murder case to show “modus operandi, state of mind, intent, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake and/or absence of innocent frame of mind.”

The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled such “proof of other crimes” motions may be granted in limited circumstances. Crimes committed in a similar manner suggest a common offender and strengthen the identification of the defendant, the motion argues.

The train operator said he was stopped at the Oak Park station when a young man in his 20s approached him and said, “Hey, bro, do you know where Harlem is at?” according to a police report. After he told the man it was the next stop, the operator said, the man tossed an unknown liquid on him.

The liquid did not “have a smell to it,” and the operator rinsed himself off with water, the police report said. He was not injured. Images taken from video showed the suspect had a large dollar sign tattooed on his cheek; records show the train operator identified Guardia in the photo lineup on May 27, 2022.

“In both incidents, the defendant was unprovoked when he poured a liquid substance on an innocent stranger,” Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Jane Sack wrote in her motion. “The two incidents are not remote as the May 10 incident occurred only 15 days prior to the present case.”

It’ll be up to a Cook County judge to determine if Guardia’s alleged involvement in the CTA attack should be admitted as evidence in the murder trial. The case is due in court for a status hearing later this summer.

A Tribune review of his criminal record found more than two dozen arrests in three states and other police contacts dating back to 2013 related to allegations of retail theft, battery, burglary, robbery, criminal trespass, domestic battery, reckless conduct, resisting arrest, public intoxication and criminal damage to property. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for suicidal thoughts, records show.

Guardia, who is being held without bond, is represented by the Cook County public defender’s office. His attorney hasn’t responded to the prosecution’s request yet. An office spokesperson declined to comment.

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