North Tonawanda's only black firefighter said he telephoned his neighbor from work on Wednesday and asked him to check if his apartment had accidentally been left unlocked.
The friend, former firefighter Matthew Jurado, promised to go across the street and check.
Minutes later, Jurado called Kenneth Walker back and told Walker that his house was on fire, Walker said.
Now Jurado is in custody, arraigned Friday on a felony arson charge, a defendant in a racially-charged case that has captured the nation's attention, prompted strangers to donate more than $103,000 to Walker's family, and left Walker reeling with surprise.
Walker said he still doesn't know if Jurado was the anonymous person who left in his mailbox two days before the fire a racist, threatening letter that demanded Walker resign as a volunteer firefighter.
Jurado admitted to detectives he set the fire, but said he didn't write the letter, according to North Tonawanda police.
“I don’t know if that’s legit, or whether he did it. I don’t know if he’s lying,” said Walker said.
He said Jurado should take ownership of the letter if he did type it.
“It would be nice to know who did it, but at the end of the day, my house is burned down, I have a family to care for, I lost my cats, and I have to rebuild,” Walker said.
A prosecutor said Friday in North Tonawanda City Court that authorities are continuing to investigate if the letter and the arson are linked, and whether Jurado was the author of the letter.
Walker said he's stunned that a person he considered a friend is now accused of setting a fire inside his 1069 Oliver St. apartment.
Jurado was the person who gave him an application to become a firefighter, Walker said. They trained together for awhile. When Jurado was removed as a member of the Live Hose Co. fire department in July, for failing to have required training, Walker said Jurado asked him to help him get an application to become a member of the Gratwick Hose Co.
On Wednesday, when Walker raced home from his job after hearing his house was on fire, Jurado met him at the scene and shook his hand, and Jurado's wife hugged his wife, Walker said.
“It’s tough to know that. It’s a friend who came into my house and who was with my family and kids. I don’t know if it was premeditated or planned for months or something he did on the spot,” said Walker, a volunteer with the Gratwick Hose Co.
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Walker said he's glad that police have made an arrest because he knows there's been some public speculation that he secretly set fire to his own house.
“It takes a weight off my shoulders,” Walker said.
And for now, Walker said he's planning to remain a firefighter.
“The community has really been behind me and the members of Gratwick Fire Department have been behind me,” Walker said.
Another firefighter from North Tonawanda, Shawn Moynihan, who did not know Walker, created a gofundme page to raise money for Walker's family after the fire heavily damaged their apartment and killed two of the Walkers' cats. Within two days, more than $103,000 had been donated to the cause by 2,613 people.
“It’s all unnecessary. I do appreciate the help. And we’re grateful,” said Walker, who said he did not know if he would accept the donations.