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Neighbor accused of arson at black firefighter's home pleads not guilty

NORTH TONAWANDA -- The former firefighter accused of setting a fire at the home of North Tonawanda's only black firefighter said almost nothing Friday morning at his arraignment in city court on an arson charge.

Matthew Jurado offered no explanations in court for the fire that police accused him of setting Wednesday afternoon in the apartment of volunteer firefighter Kenneth D. Walker, who lives across the street from Jurado. He also said not a word about the racist threatening letter that Walker told authorities was left his his mailbox Monday, a letter that demanded Walker resign as a firefighter.

North Tonawanda City Court Judge William Lewis entered a not guilty plea for Jurado, who appeared in court without an attorney.

The judge asked him if he had an attorney. He said “No, sir” and asked for an application for a court-appointed counsel.

Jurado said nothing else in court during the 5-minute arraignment, as North Tonawanda's mayor and fire chief watched from the seats.

Afterward, as North Tonawanda police escorted the handcuffed Jurado to a police car to take him to the Niagara County jail, reporters shouted questions at the defendant.

"Did you set the fire?," they yelled. "Are you going to make bail? Did you write the letter?"

Jurado looked straight ahead and didn't say a word.

Jurado, 39, of Oliver Street, was arrested Thursday on a second-degree arson charge. He's accused of setting fire to the 1096 Oliver St. apartment where Walker lived with his wife and their two young daughters. The Walkers were not home at the time, but two other tenants were sleeping in the four-unit, one-story building when the smoke detectors started blaring.

Jurado, whose girlfriend called 911 to report the fire, had been let go from Live Hose Co. No. 4, a volunteer fire company, in July, according to North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas. Fire officials said Jurado was let go because he lacked the proper training. Walker, who knew Jurado, is a member of Gratwick Hose Co., another volunteer fire department in North Tonawanda.

In court, Assistant District Attorney Joel Grundy requested no bail be set for Jurado because of the severity of crime, but the judge set bail at $50,000.

According to police, Jurado has admitted setting the fire in Walker's apartment, but denied writing the letter with racial slurs that Walker found in his mailbox.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” Grundy said. “There’s still an investigation on the letter and how it may relate to the arson.”

Speaking of the mystery surrounding the letter, Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said, “I’m very confident it will be resolved. And it will be resolved quickly. That’s my gut feeling. Our people are determined to solve it.”

[RELATED: North Tonawanda's only black firefighter targeted by racist letter at his home]

The mayor has publicly said that the racist letter and suspicious fire do not represent the kind of community that North Tonawanda is. People have donated more than $92,000 to the Walker family through a gofundme fundraiser created by another firefighter from North Tonawanda.

[RELATED: Meet the guy who helped raise $125,000 for North Tonawanda firefighter]

“If anybody doesn’t think this could happen in their community, they’re delusional. Sometimes, small communities who have never experienced this think it can’t happen,” Pappas said.



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