Compton's Interim Deputy Fire Chief -- a one-time BET reality star -- faced a judge Friday on accusations that he stole city-owned communications equipment, sold it over the internet, and then set fire to fire department headquarters to destroy the evidence.
Marcel Melanson, 37, pled not guilty to arson, grand theft, and embezzlement charges in a Los Angeles Superior Court. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years and 8 months in state prison.
During his 15 years with the fire department, Melanson became something of a media darling. He was a prominent character in a BET series called "First In," which shadowed the department. Melanson drew attention for his youth, elaborate tattoos -- and dangerous job.
In 2010, Fast Company named him one of "the top 100 most creative people in business" for his efforts in technological innovation for the fire department. He was lauded for his ability to get around a constrained budget by bringing corporations in to help -- including Motorola and Cisco.
"He was very bright young man and had a shining future, so we're still not understanding why he decided to take these actions," said Compton City Manager Harold Duffey.
The charges stem from a fire that broke out on December 11, 2011 near the racquetball courts in Compton's main fire station on Acacia Ave. According to reports from the time, the fire destroyed about $1.1 million in communications equipment.
The city had purchased the Motorola radios as a preliminary step towards reviving its police department, which shut down in 2000 to save costs amidst a budget crisis. The city has contracted policing to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department ever since. Compton's City Council launched an effort to rebuild its police department in 2010 and the radios were part of the preparations.
The City Council aborted the plan for lack of funds the following year and reportedly decided to sell the Motorolas. That was eight months before the fire.
In March 2012, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department found for sale on the internet several radios the city had thought burned up in the fire.
Duffey, Compton's City Manager, said some radios were returned by the people who'd purchased them.
"That helped the investigation, obviously," he said. The city recouped 70 percent of the damaged equipment's value through insurance.
On Friday, Melanson's attorney, Robert Rico, said the investigation took so long because fire investigators disagreed about whether the blaze was intentionally set or an accident. It's being investigated by authorities from both Long Beach and Montebello. The Sheriff's department investigated the embezzlement allegations.
Rico said one of the Long Beach fire investigators recently changed his or her mind and decided the fire constituted arson.
"Obviously we have an issue with that," he said.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose declined to comment.
Melanson is currently in jail on $350,000 bail. Because of the embezzlement charges, a judge must review the source of his bail funds before he can be released. A bail hearing is set for May 24. Duffey said Melanson was released from service two months ago.