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Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Marcel Melanson Arson/Theft Case

     In 1998, 22-year-old Marcel Melanson joined the fire department in Los Angeles County's Compton California. While the ambitious and popular firefighter succeeded at his job, he wasn't good at managing his financial affairs. In 2005 the state of California filed a $29,000 tax lien against him. Two years later the IRS hit him with a $80,240 tax lien.

     Melanson became a minor celebrity in 2009 as a regular participant in a BET Network reality TV series called "First In." A TV crew followed the fire battalion chief as he led a rescue team that came to the aid of victims of traffic accidents and street crime. About this time Inked Magazine featured Melanson's elaborate tattoos on his back, arms and neck.

     The crime-ridden city of Compton, like its celebrity firefighter, had run into financial problems. The municipality, due to a revenue shortfall and bloated budgets, had disbanded its police department. In June 2010 members of the Compton City Council, in anticipation of bringing back the police force, authorized the purchase of $1.7 million in communications equipment from the Motorola Corporation. Melanson, an emergency communications expert, sat on a three-person technology committee that oversaw the purchase of this equipment.

     By 2011 the city of Compton was on the verge of insolvency. As a result the police department was not coming back and the city was stuck with hundreds of radios that cost $2,500 a piece. The city stored the excess communications equipment at the Compton Fire Department.

     In December 2011 a fire broke out and quickly spread at the Compton Fire Department in the area housing the surplus radio equipment. Arson investigators determined that the fire had been intentionally set and that Marcel Melanson was the only person in the station at the time of the fire. Detectives with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office discovered that prior to the blaze someone had stolen thousands of dollars worth of the radios. Further investigation revealed that over the past several months the thief had been selling the stolen property, one radio at a time, on Internet sites like eBay. Theft detectives, by 2013, had recovered fifty of the stolen communication units.

     In February 2013, Melanson, the prime suspect in the thefts and the arson, was fired. Deputies with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, at eleven o'clock on the morning of May 15, 2013, arrested the 37-year-old at his home in Torrance California. Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose charged the former celebrity firefighter with arson, grand theft and embezzlement. If found guilty as charged, Melanson faced up to ten years in prison. A judge set his bail at $350,000.

     Investigators believed that Melanson set the fire to cover his radio equipment thefts. The suspect's attorney, Robert Rico, publicly insisted that his client was innocent. According to the defense attorney, a Long Beach Fire Department arson investigator had initially reported that the Compton fire was not arson, then later changed his mind.

     While a firefighter committing arson is not that unusual, firefighters rarely torch a fire station. Due to the celebrity element in this particular case, Melanson's arrest attracted a lot of southern California media attention. People who knew him and worked with the former high-ranking firefighter had a hard time believing he was guilty as charged.

     In April 2014 Marcel Melason pleaded no contest to felony arson and embezzlement by a public official. In June, the judge sentenced him to three years and four months in prison and ordered him to pay $517,477 in restitution. 

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