A former Compton Fire Department battalion chief pleaded no contest Tuesday to felony charges of arson of property and embezzlement by a public official.
Marcel Melanson, 38, was accused of stealing valuable city-owned radio equipment, then setting a fire to cover up the theft.
He is expected to be sentenced to three years and four months in state prison, a prosecutor said. Melanson must pay restitution, but the amount is still being determined, the prosecutor added.
As a result of the plea, authorities dropped the more severe charge of arson of a structure and a second embezzlement count.
The resolution of the case came as a surprise to Fire Department employees who appeared at a downtown courthouse prepared to testify against someone they said was like family.
According to authorities, a fire broke out at Compton's Fire Station No. 1 in December 2011 in an indoor racquetball court where the radio equipment was stored. The building was slightly damaged, and many of the 200-plus radios were destroyed.
The equipment, valued at more than $1 million, was bought by the city during a failed attempt to revive its Police Department, which had been disbanded in favor of a policing contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. When that plan was scrapped, the city hoped to recoup some of its investment by selling the radios.
After the damaged radios were accounted for and it was noticed that 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 U.S. 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. Melanson set up the fire to look accidental, said Patrick Wills, an arson investigator with the Long Beach Fire Department.
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, Rose added.
The allegations shook the Compton Fire Department, where Melanson had been well-liked.
"I'm not mad at him, more mad at what he did," said Deputy Chief Bryan Batiste, who knew Melanson since his involvement with the Fire Department in high school. "It's like a family business — terminating your brother or something."
Fire Chief Jon Thompson said he was happy that Melanson's plea saved his department from getting involved in a trial.
Melanson was fired from the department before being arrested in May 2013. He had faced up to 10 years and eight months in prison, Rose said.
"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."
Melanson is expected to be sentenced May 22.