Residents aid black firefighter who lost home to alleged arson

Kwegyirba Croffie and Rachel Cao, CNN | 8/8/2016, 4:37 a.m.
Support for the only black volunteer firefighter in an upstate New York town continues to pour in after he lost ...
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(CNN) -- Support for the only black volunteer firefighter in an upstate New York town continues to pour in after he lost his home to suspected arson within days of receiving a letter containing racial slurs.

A judge Friday entered a not guilty plea on behalf of the suspect, a former volunteer firefighter.

Kenneth Walker said he received a letter in his mailbox Monday demanding 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 and said Walker would "regret it" if he didn't resign.

"[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.

Police arrested Matthew Jurado, 39, who lives across the street from Walker, on Thursday. He was charged with second-degree arson.

Jurado "admitted to us that he started the fire," said Detective Capt. Thomas Krantz of North Tonawanda police. But the suspect 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." Krantz said.

Jurado did not have an attorney present when the judge entered the not guilty plea, but he will return to court August 11 to apply for a public defender, said court clerk Faith Elliott.

Jurado is being held on a $50,000 bail, the clerk said. He was booked Friday morning at the Niagara County Jail, according to Beth Dunn of the Niagara County Sheriff's Office.

Bob Brennan, president of the Gratwick Hose Fire Company, where Walker volunteers, said that when Walker showed him the letter on Monday evening he felt physically ill. After the fire, he said, he felt "disbelief and rage."

"It's been a full range of emotions," Brennan said.

Brennan, who is speaking on behalf of the family, said he has known Walker for four years and considers him a close friend.

"He is somebody I could call at 3 in the morning if I was three hours away from home, and he would come and get me," Brennan said.

Ex-colleagues knew each other

The suspect allegedly told police that the fire was not race-related, but that he was upset with the fire department after being removed from his position.

Jurado was removed from the fire department in July for "not meeting the necessary training requirements," said Sikora, the fire chief.

Jurado and Walker knew each other because they had taken some training courses together, authorities said. But Krantz wouldn't go into detail about possible motives for targeting Walker's home.

The town's fire and police department, along with the FBI and New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control investigated the fire and the letter, which shocked many in the town.