Aug. 05–NORTH TONAWANDA — The family of Kenneth Walker, North Tonawanda’s only black firefighter, whose home was burned down Wednesday in what was feared to be a racially motivated attack, was stunned to learn that a neighbor and fellow former firefighter was arrested for the arson.
They were also shocked when they realized that the suspect — identified as , 39, who lives right across Oliver Street from them — had been at the scene of Wednesday’s fire, according to Robert Sands, Kenneth Walker’s uncle.
“I believe I talked with him,” Sands said. “His girlfriend was there. It’s really mindboggling.”
He said his nephew “is really relieved, but part of him is hurt because he trained with this guy at the fire academy and he’s a neighbor … Kenneth kind of thought of him as a friend.”
Amanda Walker, Kenneth’s wife, expressed a mix of emotions. “I am angry and relieved but in disbelief,” said Amanda Walker. “He’s been over to our home a couple of times and talked to our (two young) kids. You don’t know who your friends are.”
Police said at the press conference that Jurado acknowledged setting the fire but claimed someone else wrote an anonymous, racist and threatening letter to Walker Monday. The letter, which used racist slurs, demanded that Walker resign as a firefighter. Jurado gave investigators the name of a person he said wrote that letter, but they said they are looking into the possibility that Jurado wrote the letter.
Jurado has been charged with second-degree arson, a felony.
Jurado’s girlfriend, who lives with him, was the one who called 911 about the fire, according to North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas.
Jurado had been let go from Live Hose Company No. 4, a volunteer fire company, in July, Pappas said. Fire officials said Jurado was let go because he didn’t have the proper training.
Jurado seemed to be passionate about being a firefighter. His Facebook feed is filled with photos of himself in turnout gear with the letters NTFD across the back. He has also posted several firefighter-themed slogans, like “I fight what you fear” and “100% pure firefighter.” Workers at a nearby convenience store said they often saw him wearing volunteer firefighter T-shirts and carrying a walkie-talkie.
Thursday night, Amanda Walker recounted how Jurado had taken her husband under his wing. The two men had undergone firefighting training together. “He requested an application so Kenneth could join Gratwick Hose Company,” she said, referring to the North Tonawanda volunteer fire company.
Sands said his nephew is relieved and 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.
Since the fire Friday, FBI agents, North Tonawanda police and state and local fire investigators had been working together to determine who set the afternoon blaze and whether it was linked to the anonymous letter Walker said he received Monday. The fire killed the family’s two cats.
“We’re investigating the letter and fire as being linked,” North Tonawanda Police Capt. Thomas Krantz said earlier Thursday. “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 the fire appeared to have been started in the living room, 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.
The possibly racially-motivated fire captured the nation’s attention as about $80,000 had been donated as of late Thursday to the Walker family.
“It’s unnecessary, but we’re grateful,” Walker said Thursday afternoon as he stood outside his burned apartment before the arrest.
“We’re overwhelmed,” said Amanda Walker.
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,” Jill S. Mailler wrote 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 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.
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