LOS ANGELES (AP) — Marcel Melanson was one of this hardscrabble Southern California suburb’s heroes, a reality TV star hailed for his dedicated and sometimes dangerous work for the Compton Fire Department.

Which made it all the harder for Compton residents to accept the news this week that their former battalion chief had been charged with arson and embezzlement, accused of setting a blaze at the Fire Department’s headquarters to hide the theft of radio equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The 15-year department veteran pleaded not guilty Friday. He could be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

“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,” City Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux told the Los Angeles Times.

Melanson, who moved up rapidly through the ranks, gained an even higher profile in Compton in 2009 when he was featured prominently in the BET reality series “First In.”

Compton has struggled financially over the years, as it battled the image of a place dominated by gang violence, drive-by shootings and political corruption. Melanson and others said at the time they hoped “First In” would help the city overcome that image.

The show focused on both the dangers Compton firefighters faced on the job and how they unwound during their time away from work with their families. Melanson, 37, once said it resulted in a police officer pulling him over just to ask for an autograph.

“He was a very talented employee, very sharp, moved up through the ranks very quickly,” Compton Fire Department Deputy Chief Bryan Batiste told the Times. “We’re all praying for him.”

Melanson was jailed in lieu of $350,000 bail. He was arrested following an investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Long Beach Fire Department.

He had been placed on administrative leave soon after the fire and was dismissed by the Fire Department in February.

His attorney, Robert Rico, told the Times a Long Beach Fire Department investigator originally determined the blaze was not arson but later changed his opinion.

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

RELATED STORY: Former Compton Fire Department Deputy Chief Arrested for Arson

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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