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Prosecutor: Firefighters set fires so they could 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 Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Wednesday. Credit: James Carbone

The compulsion of two volunteer firefighters to be first on the scene of a fire drove two of them to set abandoned houses ablaze in Central Islip so they could get a head start responding, a Suffolk prosecutor told jurors Wednesday in Riverhead.

But defense attorneys said their clients — Stephen Hernandez, 25, of Central Islip and Weldon Drayton Jr., 35, of Brentwood — were wrongly accused by a troubled colleague who made a deal with prosecutors to avoid years in prison himself. And for the second time this week, they told state Supreme Court Justice John Collins that prosecutors continued to improperly withhold evidence from them in violation of the law.

Before opening statements began, several jurors responded with raised eyebrows when Collins told them that prosecutors were "delinquent" in turning over evidence to the defense. "I may have more to say in that regard as the trial progresses," Collins told them.

Assistant District Attorney Luigi Belcastro said in his opening statement that volunteer firefighters love to be "first due," or the first at a scene, which increases the odds that they'll get inside the burning building and get "salty" or covered in soot and grime. Hernandez and Drayton wanted the firehouse prestige that came with such saltiness, Belcastro said, so they and others set a series of houses on fire from October 2017 to January 2018.

They'd then respond almost immediately to the fire house and would be among the first on the scene, he said.

"It shows the rest of the firehouse that you're the best of the best," Belcastro  said.

Two fellow Central Islip firefighters, Austin Lehman and Alfredo Laureano, will testify they set the fires with the help of the defendants, Belcastro said.

Defense attorneys, however, said Laureano and especially Lehman aren't worthy of belief.

"They [prosecutors] got all their information from a liar, a felon and someone you're going to learn was a loser," Hernandez' attorney, Steve Politi of Central Islip, said of Lehman. He told jurors that if prosecutors are pleased enough with his testimony, he'll escape potentially decades in prison and get probation.

It is absurd, Politi said, that Drayton — a 19-year veteran of the fire department and a former combat Marine — or Hernandez, who was on track to become an emergency medical technician for the Fire Department of New York City, would need to pump up their credentials. They were trying to mentor Lehman, but "it backfired on them," Politi said.

He said Lehman's credibility issues and the lack of any other evidence of the defendants' involvement should lead to an acquittal. That's particularly so, he said, if jurors consider that prosecutors went out of their way to avoid collecting video evidence or divulging it to the defense. If they'd collected video from fire houses and fire scenes, Politi said it would be evidence of innocence, not guilt.

Drayton's attorney, Stephen McCarthy Jr. of Manhattan, also attacked Lehman's trustworthiness.

"His credibility is absolutely, unequivocally, complete garbage," McCarthy said. "When you see Austin Lehman, you are going to look at is character and say, 'Are you kidding me?'"

Before the jury came in the courtroom, defense attorney Caroline Mayrhofer, speaking for both defendants, argued that the case should be abandoned because of the prosecution's behavior. She said the defense got video from fire scenes Wednesday morning and they have not had a chance to look at it.

"It's quite incomprehensible that this video was in the possession of the district attorney's office and was just provided to us on the morning of opening statements," Mayrhofer said.

"The second morning of opening statements," Collins added tartly, referring to Monday, when he delayed the case two days because prosecutors had withheld other video and evidence that some of their witnesses had been recently arrested.

Mayhofer said the defense also learned Wednesday that Lehman had photos of other abandoned houses he intended to set on fire. Collins said the prosecution would be forbidden from using that, saying there is "no excuse for the late disclosure of such material."

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Weiss started to argue that the defense should have noticed earlier they hadn't received the missing video, but Collins interrupted him.

"Mr. Weiss, you're not actually going to blame the defense for that, are you?" Collins said.

"May I continue, your honor?" Weiss said.

"Yes, at your peril," Collins replied.

Weiss did, but Collins remained unimpressed. He denied Mayrhofer's request for a mistrial, but said the defense will have greater freedom to cross-examine witnesses and prosecutors will be barred from introducing some evidence.

And he said he would consider sanctions against the prosecutor later.

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