NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. – Police arrested a former volunteer firefighter after he admitted to setting fire to the home of an ex-colleague, who is the only black volunteer firefighter in an upstate New York town.
Two days before the arson, the victim Kenneth Walker said he received a letter in his mailbox. It demanded he resign from the fire department by the end of the week and that he leave the small town of North Tonawanda. The letter used the N-word several times.
“[Expletive deleted] are not allowed to be firefighters,” it said. “No one wants you in this city.”
A fire broke out Wednesday afternoon while Walker and his family were away. Two cats in his apartment were killed and almost everything inside was destroyed, said North Tonawanda Fire Chief Joseph Sikora.
On Thursday, North Tonawanda Police arrested Matthew Jurado, 39, a former volunteer firefighter who lives across the street from Walker. He was charged with second-degree arson and is to be arraigned Friday morning.
Jurado “admitted to us that he started the fire,” said Detective Captain Thomas Krantz of North Tonawanda Police Department. But he denied writing the threatening letter to Walker.
“At this point, we have a name that he provided us. However, we are still looking at the possibility that it is in fact he who wrote the letter. It could be this other person but that will be determined at a later date.” he said.
The ex-colleagues knew each other
The suspect told police that the fire was not race-related, but that he was upset with the fire department after being removed from his position.
In July, Jurado had been removed from the fire department for “not meeting the necessary training requirements,” said Joseph Sikora, the North Tonawanda fire chief.
Jurado and Walker had known each other because they had taken some training courses together, authorities said. But Krantz wouldn’t get into specific detail about possible motives for targeting Walker’s home.
The town’s fire and police department, along with the FBI and the New York State Office of Fire Control investigated the fire and the racist letter, which shocked many in the city.
“I told everybody it’s appalling to think about what’s taking place,” Sikora told CNN. “Our city has never had an issue like this. Not in 26 years. Quite frankly it sickens me.”
An outpouring of support
The fire left Walker’s family without their home.
“That was everything that we owned and we pretty much have to start all over,” Walker told CNN affiliate WKBW . “We have two young kids and trying to explain to our 4-year-old that we have to move and go to a different house, it’s going to be a change for her, for us.”
The outpouring from the community has been overwhelming. Residents have brought in food, money and clothes.
“They have a lot of pieces to put back together,” Walker’s uncle, Robert Sands, told CNN.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t take anything because there’s nowhere to put it.”
Walker has been a volunteer firefighter at Gratwick Hose Fire Company for two years. He helps in medical situations, Sikora said.
A sign outside the fire department now reads, “We support Ken Walker.”
“He’s there on Sundays. He’s there on holidays taking time away from his family and sleep to answer calls,” Bob Brennan of the fire company told WKBW. “I wish I had 20 more members like Ken Walker.”
Sands, the uncle, said the Walker family is holding up as best as it can.
“They’re doing OK. They’re holding it together,” he said. “They’re trusting the process that law enforcement will do their job and get them some answers.”