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Central Islip fire chief testifies in arson trial about firefighters' desire to be first on scene

Stephen Hernandez, left, of Central Islip, and Weldon

Stephen Hernandez, left, of Central Islip, and Weldon Drayton Jr. of Brentwood at state Supreme Court in Riverhead on Wednesday. Credit: James Carbone

The chief of the Central Islip Fire Department testified over the past two days in Riverhead that firefighters crave being the first to respond to a burning building and seeing action — but the opposing sides in an arson trial of two firefighters attributed different meanings to that urge.

For Suffolk prosecutors in the trial of Stephen Hernandez, 25, of Central Islip, and Weldon Drayton Jr., 35, of Brentwood, the desire to be first at a scene was motive for arson. They say that's why Hernandez set five abandoned houses on fire, one with Drayton's help.

But the defense suggested in its questioning of Chief Patrick Murphy that anyone would want firefighters to respond as quickly as possible, and that doing so is laudable, not suspicious.

During questioning by Assistant District Attorney Andrew Weiss, Murphy said firefighters strive to be "first due," or in the first crew to arrive at a scene. That increases their chance to fight the heart of the fire and getting "salty," or covered in soot and grime.

"There's credibility within the fire department for being first due," Murphy told jurors and state Supreme Court Justice John Collins. "The saltier you are, the more respect you might command."

In addition to the desire to serve the public, Murphy acknowledged that it's a thrill to fight fires.

"It's exciting," he said. "It's a rush. It's an adrenaline rush."

Weiss took Murphy through the five fires at issue, all of which took place before dawn from October 2017 to January 2018 and close to Central Islip's Station 2, where Hernandez and Drayton were based. In each case, Murphy said both defendants were on the first or one of the first trucks to roll from the firehouse.

In some cases, Murphy said their truck assembled a five-person crew unusually quickly. But during cross-examination, Hernandez' attorney, Steve Politi of Central Islip, focused on other members of that crew. They included Austin Lehman, 20, who has pleaded guilty to setting all the fires. He is expected to testify against Hernandez and Drayton under a cooperation agreement that could help him avoid decades in prison.

Politi focused on the fact that Lehman was not promoted from his status as a probationary firefighter, as almost all others are, and that he had other problems.

"Do you recall Austin Lehman throwing up at your feet?" Politi asked.

Murphy said he didn't, and added, "He wouldn't be the only firefighter who's thrown up. I'm sure you've thrown up, too."

Hernandez, on the other hand, was the subject of a letter of recommendation that Murphy signed to help him get an emergency medical technician job with the Fire Department of New York City.

He noted that firefighters may respond quickly to a call if they are hanging out at a firehouse, which is open 24 hours a day. Murphy said volunteers are urged to spend time there to build camaraderie and to be ready in case a call comes.

During questioning by Drayton's attorney, Stephen McCarthy Jr. of Manhattan, Murphy said the defendant was a captain in the department, respected not only for his firefighting service, but for his combat duty in the Army and his position as a Suffolk police officer. Murphy said everyone in the department knew Drayton was as salty as he was.

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