Kenneth Walker knew Matthew Jurado, his family said.
Walker, a volunteer firefighter, and Jurado had taken training courses together, authorities said. They lived across the street from one another in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Jurado, Walker’s wife said, had been in the family’s apartment.
“I am angry and relieved but in disbelief,” Amanda Walker, Kenneth’s wife, told the Buffalo News. “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.”
Jurado, a former firefighter, was at the scene of a fire at the Walker family’s apartment Wednesday, Robert Sands, Kenneth Walker’s uncle, told the newspaper. But now the 39-year-old Jurado is charged in the incident, accused in a blaze that some worried was racially motivated.
“I believe I talked with him,” Sands told the Buffalo News. “His girlfriend was there. It’s really mind-boggling.”
Sands told the newspaper that 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.”
Walker’s apartment went up in flames earlier this week, a few days after someone left a note with a racial slur in the family’s mailbox.
“N—–S ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE FIREFIGHTERS,” it read.
The note, printed in all-caps on white paper, gave Kenneth Walker an ultimatum: Resign by the end of the week — “OR YOU WILL REGRET IT.”
And in the wake of the blaze, FBI and local investigators had worked to determine whether the fire was connected in any way to the racist letter left at Walker’s building in western New York. Investigators said Jurado, who was arrested on a second-degree arson charge, admitted to his role in the fire, but said he wasn’t behind the letter.
“He admitted to us that he did start the fire. He does not admit that he wrote the letter. States he knows who wrote it, but he didn’t want to tell us who that person was,” Detective Capt. Thomas Krantz said at a news conference. “Stated that it was not race-related, but rather he was upset with the fire department because he had recently been removed from the volunteer fire department. So right now, it’s an ongoing investigation still in regards to the letter and then any other information that comes up, any other leads we will be following up on.”
Walker, his wife and his two daughters weren’t at home when the fire started, but the family’s two cats were killed, according to the Buffalo News. Other families in the apartment building escaped unharmed, but all have been displaced.
The News reports that Jurado appeared in court Friday, where a judge entered a not guilty plea for him.
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.
Walker, who has worked for the Gratwick Hose Volunteer Fire Department for two years, called the letter an act of intimidation, but he said he was undaunted.
North Tonawanda, about 10 miles from Niagara Falls, is home to roughly 31,000 people, less than 1 percent of whom identify as solely African American, according to census figures. An online fundraiser for Walker has raised more than $115,000 since the blaze.
Walker wrote on Facebook that “all of the support is much appreciated.” But, he added: “With that being said, my family does not need a go fund me page or any special treatment. We are strong and will get through it. So please, there is no need for you to donate money. As i said before, this isn’t about being on the news or in the paper. I hate it actually.”
He added: “There’s no need for money. Your kind words are more than enough. Thank you.”
This story has been updated.