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Arrest made in arson of black North Tonawanda firefighter’s home

NORTH TONAWANDA – A recently fired firefighter admitted to police that he had started the fire at the home of North Tonawanda’s only black firefighter Wednesday, North Tonawanda officials announced Thursday night.

Matthew Jurado, 39, who lives right across Oliver Street from Kenneth Walker, was arrested just before 7 p.m. Thursday and charged with second-degree arson, a felony.

Police said Jurado acknowledged setting the fire but said someone else wrote an anonymous, racist and threatening letter to Walker Monday.

Investigators said Jurado gave the name of a person he said wrote that letter, but authorities said they are looking into the possibility that Jurado wrote the letter.

Jurado “was upset about being removed from the fire department,” police officials said at a press conference shortly after 9 p.m.

They said Jurado and Walker had undergone some training together.

FBI agents, North Tonawanda police and state and local fire investigators were working together to determine who set the afternoon blaze and whether it was linked to the anonymous letter Walker said he received Monday.

North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas praised the police and firefighters for quickly finding a suspect.

“It certainly shows what working together and cooperation can do,” he said.

Walker lived at the Oliver Street apartment that was set on fire with his wife and two daughters. At the time, no one was home, but two of the family’s cats were killed.

After the announcement of the arrest, Robert Sands, Kenneth Walker’s uncle, of Buffalo, said his nephew is relieved and at the same time upset regarding the identity of the individual that was arrested.

“Kenneth is really relieved, but part of him is hurt because he trained with this guy at the fire academy and he’s a neighbor,” Sands said. “Kenneth kind of thought of him as a friend.”

Sands said his nephew is keeping a low profile because “he’s with his kids right now.”

The family, however, wanted to express their gratitude to North Tonawanda police, the FBI and state fire investigators.

“Kudos to the North Tonawanda police and all law enforcement. They took this seriously, but there’s still some unanswered questions. The suspect says he didn’t write the letter,” Sands said.

The possibly racially-motivated fire captured the nation’s attention as at least $70,000 has been donated to the Walker family.

“It’s unnecessary, but we’re grateful,” Walker said Thursday afternoon as he stood outside his burned apartment.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said Amanda Walker, his wife.

Investigators believe the fire was intentionally set shortly after noon Wednesday in the Oliver Street apartment Walker shared with his wife and their two young daughters, North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said Thursday. The fire, which did not injure anyone, “appears to be of a suspicious nature,” the mayor said.

Another law enforcement source said Thursday that “no person has been ruled out” as a suspect.

Here are the latest developments:

• Investigators with the North Tonawanda Police, FBI and fire investigators are still trying to determine if the fire was linked to a threatening letter that Walker said was left Monday in the mailbox of his apartment. The letter, which used racist slurs, demanded that Walker resign as a firefighter. “We’re investigating the letter and fire as being linked,” North Tonawanda Police Capt. Thomas Krantz said. “We’re not 100 percent certain that one is related to the other. But we’re investigating it as such.”

• Fire investigators told Walker’s family that the fire appeared suspicious, said Walker’s uncle. “They did tell us it appeared to start in the living room and that it was of a suspicious nature. But they didn’t say if an accelerant was involved,” Sands said.

• The couch in Walker’s apartment was burned to the springs, according to Charles Internicola, owner of the apartment building where Walker lived.

“From the looks of it, it appears the fire started on the top of the couch. You can see the scorch marks going up the wall behind it,” he said.

Police have made no arrests.

Another volunteer firefighter, Shawn Moynihan, who said he did not know Walker, created a GoFundMe fundraising page Wednesday afternoon to benefit the Walkers. Moynihan is a volunteer with the Bergholz Fire Department.

“Nobody should ever have to go through what this man and his family are going through. It does not matter what color we are on the outside - we all bleed red,” wrote Jill S. Mailler on the GoFundMe page.

Walker said Wednesday on Facebook that he does not need any special treatment or a GoFundMe page, writing, “As I said before, this isn’t about being on the news or in the paper. I hate it actually. There’s no need for money, your kind words are more than enough. Thank you.”

The couple briefly visited their burned apartment Thursday afternoon.

While they were there, North Tonawanda resident John Karcz and his two daughters showed up.

Karcz had given Walker a bag of used clothing earlier in the day. He returned with his children, Anastasia, 7, and Isabella, 5, who brought their toys to donate to Walker’s two daughters.

“I raided my closet for clothes when I got home. My girls went through their playroom and picked out toys they wanted to give,” Karcz said.

“I feel happy I’m giving toys to the other children,” Anastasia Karcz said.

The Gratwick Hose Volunteer Fire Company, where Walker has been a member for two years, will collect donations for Walker’s family at its hall at 110 Ward Road from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, the Fire Department announced.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com and nfischer@buffnews.com

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