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Ex-Compton fire official charged with arson, theft

Marcel Melanson, once considered a charismatic department hero, pleads not guilty to stealing expensive radios while a battalion chief and denies setting a fire to cover up the theft.

May 17, 2013|By Abby Sewell, Angel Jennings and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Marcel Melanson is shown at his arraignment, at which he pleaded not guilty to arson and theft charges.
Marcel Melanson is shown at his arraignment, at which he pleaded not guilty… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Marcel Melanson was a hero in Compton.

The fire battalion chief led teams that raced to help victims of car crashes and street violence. Three years ago, he got national exposure as a star of a BET reality TV program that followed Compton firefighters on emergency calls.

"We're constantly battling the perception of the city," he told the Los Angeles Times when the show premiered. "It's constantly thought of as this bad place."

On Friday, he was back in the public eye, but under very different circumstances. Melanson, 37, appeared in court to face charges that he set a fire at the Compton Fire Department headquarters as part of an elaborate scheme to steal communications equipment from the cash-strapped city.

Law enforcement sources said investigators were able to track the equipment because they were sold piecemeal on Internet sites, including EBay. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department eventually recovered more than 50 of the radios, worth about $2,500 each, "from around the world," said spokesman Steve Whitmore.

The allegations left Compton city officials and Melanson's co-workers stunned. Melanson was a well-known figure in the city. Young, handsome and charismatic, he was described by colleagues as a self-made man who became an expert in emergency communication systems.

He also cut an unusual figure for a firefighter. He was featured in the tattoo magazine Inked for the elaborate pieces covering his back, arms and neck, including a tableau on his back of a firefighter facing a raging inferno.

"He was a very talented employee, very sharp, moved up through the ranks very quickly," Compton Fire Department Deputy Chief Bryan Batiste said. "… We're all praying for him."

"I always thought he was the smartest guy up there," added another city official, who asked not to be named. "I thought he should've been chief."

The shock was mixed with bitterness. The radio equipment that Melanson allegedly stole was purchased by the city for more than $1 million as part of an ill-fated attempt to revive its police department.

The city came close to insolvency in 2011, and officials hoped to sell the equipment to recoup some much-needed cash. Authorities allege that Melanson stole much of the equipment and set the rest on fire, hoping the missing radios would not be detected.

Melanson was charged Friday with arson, grand theft and embezzlement. He pleaded not guilty and remained jailed, with bail set at $350,000. If convicted, he would face a maximum of 10 years and eight months in state prison, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Renee Rose.

Melanson's defense attorney, Robert Rico, said that he is still reviewing the case but that a Long Beach Fire Department investigator being used as an expert initially determined the fire was not an arson. The investigator recently changed his mind, Rico added.

"I don't believe my client committed this crime, and I'm concerned about an alleged expert changing his opinion," Rico said.

The criminal complaint filed against Melanson showed the theft and embezzlement allegations dating back to 2008, well before the December 2011 fire. Those earlier charges relate to other equipment stolen from the city.

City officials said Melanson was known as a communications wiz and an expert in emergency radio systems.

He sat on a three-person technology committee that was instrumental in the purchase of the police radios he is now accused of stealing.

The City Council voted in June 2010 to bring back the Compton Police Department, using bond funds reallocated from other projects. The city spent at least $1.7 million on preparations to set up a department, including more than $1 million on Motorola communications equipment. But the police department was never established, and the city was stuck with the radios.

The fire broke out at a racquetball court at the city's Fire Department headquarters, where the radio equipment was stored. Authorities allege Melanson stole many of the radios and then burned the rest. The city eventually got about $300,000 back through insurance.

Batiste said Melanson was the only firefighter at the station when the blaze broke out, and his co-workers wondered how someone with his training could have allowed the fire to get so far out of hand.

Melanson was placed on administrative leave shortly after the blaze and was fired in February 2013. City Manager Harold Duffey said that as far as he was aware, no other city employees had been disciplined in connection with the incident.

Fire officials from Long Beach and Montebello investigated the potential arson, while the Sheriff's Department looked into the embezzlement allegations.

Melanson was known to have financial problems.

In July 2007, the IRS filed a $80,240 lien against Melanson, records show. That lien was released in April 2011. Before that, the state of California filed a $29,000 tax lien against him in 2005 that was released in 2007.

Melanson had worked for the department for about 15 years, rising to the rank of interim deputy chief when still in his early 30s.

On the BET reality series "First In," Melanson emerged as a star. In one episode, he and his team respond to a plane crash in the city. Clad in full firefighter gear, Melanson calmly directs crew members as they pull residents out of a home hit by the small plane. With a gas leak threatening to blow up the house, Melanson is shown pushing past debris to get inside the home and look for a missing woman.

Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux said it's hard to reconcile that man with the allegations he is now facing.

"I'm hurt for him. I'm hurt for his family, and I'm hurt for the city of Compton for losing such an upstanding role model," she said.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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