A 75-year-old man known affectionately to Chicagoans as the “Walking Man,” was in critical condition early Wednesday after someone doused him in flammable liquid and lit him on fire as he lay on the ground overnight on Lower Wacker Drive, according to Chicago police.
Joseph Kromelis, who once told the Tribune he “roams as a way of life,” had been resting when a man he didn’t know came up to him in the 400 block of North Lower Wabash Avenue about 2:50 a.m., police said.
The stranger “then proceeded to ignite the victim before fleeing the scene,” according to a media statement from police.
A security officer working at a nearby building in the Near North neighborhood saw the man engulfed in flames and rushed over with a fire extinguisher, which he used to put the fire out, police said.
Paramedics took him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where the man was listed in critical condition. Authorities said he suffered burns “to nearly half his body.”
The attacker, who is wanted on suspicion of aggravated battery and arson, took off running west after setting the man on fire.
Police have not suggested a motive for the attack. It wasn’t immediately clear whether investigators recovered surveillance video from the area.
In May of 2016, also along Lower Wacker Drive, Kromelis was beaten by an attacker wielding a baseball bat. He spent several weeks hospitalized and he rallied back.
Strangers, who for decades recognized him by his distinctive long, wavy hair, mustache and sport coat as he wandered downtown streets, were so moved by his plight in 2016 that they donated more than $33,000 to a GoFundMe account set up by his nephew to help cover medical bills. Well-wishers spent another $5,500 on charity T-shirts bearing the slogan “Walk on, Dude.”
Kromelis has been a fixture in downtown street life, often seen browsing inside stores and walking the streets of the Magnificent Mile and Streeterville. He has been featured in news stories and videos, including a YouTube feature titled, “Dudementary.” A few years ago, someone created a Facebook page where people post sightings.
Kromelis once joked: “I’m like the Kardashians — I’m famous for doing nothing.”
No arrests had been made as of Wednesday morning and no description of the attacker had been released by police.
Check back for updates.