A jury acquitted a Suffolk County man Tuesday of any role in setting fire to a doctor’s office, rejecting testimony from government witnesses in a case prosecutors framed as a cardiologist’s attempt to burn down a rival’s business.
Defendant James Kalamaras, 42, closed his eyes and bowed his head after hearing not guilty verdicts on the arson, burglary and criminal mischief charges against him.
The tattoo artist and felon had been facing up to life in prison if he’d been convicted.
“I’m very blessed,” he later said of a verdict that followed about three hours of jury deliberations.
Nassau prosecutors had accused Kalamaras of using bottles of gasoline to fuel a Feb. 25, 2015, fire that did $65,000 in damage at the Great Neck office of Dr. Martin Handler.
The district attorney’s office had alleged Handler’s ex-employee, Dr. Anthony Moschetto, hired accomplice Nicholas Baialardo to arrange the fire and gave him a building key.
Moschetto, 55, of Sands Point has pleaded not guilty to a 77-count indictment that includes a murder-for-hire plot against the same doctor, along with arson, drug and weapons counts.
Prosecutors had said Baialardo recruited Kalamaras to set the fire and James Chmela as the getaway driver who also supplied the key, gasoline and other items to Kalamaras.
But the jury decided testimony from Baialardo and Chmela, who pleaded guilty and struck cooperation deals with prosecutors, wasn’t reliable.
“They just didn’t seem credible,” jury foreman Joseph Sblendorio, 33, said in an interview after the verdict.
He added jurors felt it was possible Chmela set the blaze — something defense attorney Steven Barnwell suggested in his closing argument.
The foreman also said jurors rejected the testimony of an eyewitness who identified Kalamaras as the man he saw running from the burning building, but only after first picking out two other men as people who “looked like the guy” he saw that night.
Juror Jessica Smith, 30, said in an interview that the testimony of Baialardo and Chmela contradicted each other on some points.
“Since much of the evidence came from them, I think the jurors . . . couldn’t put any credibility in them and as such found my client not guilty,” Barnwell said of the government cooperators.
Another juror told prosecutors outside the courtroom that the panel had doubts it had been Kalamaras on the other end of a recorded phone call Baialardo made after becoming a police informant.
Baialardo, who also testified he and Moschetto teamed up to traffic oxycodone and guns, told jurors it was a call between himself and Kalamaras. Barnwell suggested, however, the call was a setup by a police informant working with another government cooperator to frame his client.
But prosecutor Anne Donnelly had argued Kalamaras repeatedly incriminated himself on the call, including by offering to do the job again if he got paid more money.
She had addressed the character of the cooperating witnesses by saying that while they were “no altar boys,” criminals operate “with people who are on the fringes of society.”
A district attorney’s office spokesman declined to comment on the verdict.
During the trial, Handler had testified he got a menacing call about a month before the fire that warned his family would get hurt if he interfered with Moschetto’s plan to pick up personal belongings and a fish tank at his Great Neck office.
Authorities have said the relationship between the doctors soured due to a professional dispute, and testimony showed money was at the heart of it.
Moschetto faces a separate upcoming trial.