A former Compton fire battalion chief pleaded no contest Tuesday to setting a fire in an attempt to conceal stealing more than $300,000 in radio equipment he was reselling on the black market.
Marcel Melanson, 38, is expected to be sentenced to three years and four months in state prison for one felony count each of arson and embezzlement. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the charge of arson of a structure and a second embezzlement count.
Melanson must also return $100,000 in restitution up front, although a civil judgment to be presented at his sentencing will likely boost the final figure by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The fire broke out at Compton’s Fire Station No. 1 in December 2011 on a racquetball court that stored the Motorola equipment, valued at more than $1 million. The building was slightly damaged and many of the 200 radios were destroyed.
The radios were bought by the city during Compton's ill-fated attempt to revive its Police Department. When the plan was scrapped, the city hoped to recoup some of its investment by selling the radios.
After accounting for the damaged radios and noticing some were missing, an investigation was opened, Deputy Dist. Atty. Renee Rose said.
Investigators from the Long Beach and Montebello fire departments, as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, concluded the blaze was arson. Attention then turned to Melanson, who was on duty at the station the night of the fire and the only one with access to the radios, Long Beach arson investigator Pat Wills said.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators discovered that many of the missing radios were sold on Ebay or offline to private buyers, Rose said. Through a repeat buyer, investigators discovered that Melanson had been selling other Compton-owned radio equipment since 2008.
After being arrested in May 2013, Melanson had faced up to 10 years and eight months in prison.
"By his plea in criminal court, Marcel took responsibility for his actions, for not only a violation of the law, but for a violation of the trust of the residents of Compton," defense attorney George Bird said in a statement. "He deeply regrets that his actions have hurt his family, his friends, and those who he worked with, his fellow firefighters."
The plea surprised a handful of Compton firefighters in the courtroom who were there to testify at what they thought would be Melanson's preliminary hearing.
Fire Chief Jon Thompson said he was relieved Melanson’s case wouldn't go to trial, where firefighters would be expected to testify against one of their own.
“I have no idea why this happened,” Thompson said. “I really would only want to know so I could go back and notice certain signs of someone in dire straits, so I could do something about it.”
Melanson was fired from the department a year ago. During his 17-year career, he was considered a prodigy and well-liked.
“I’m not mad at him, more mad at what he did,” Deputy Chief Bryan Batiste said. “It’s like a family business -- terminating your brother or something.”
Thompson expects many more firefighters to attend the sentencing on May 22, where Melanson is expected to publicly apologize.