The admitted getaway driver for a man accused of arson in an alleged plot to burn a Great Neck cardiologist out of business testified Wednesday he didn’t light the fire himself because he was “too scared to do it.”
“I’m really not a criminal,” witness James Chmela, 45, of Selden, told jurors at the arson and burglary trial of James Kalamaras in Nassau County Court.
Chmela testified he first met Kalamaras, 42, when the defendant did some tattoos for him. The prosecution witness, who began cooperating with authorities after his arrest, said he picked up Kalamaras at a Port Jefferson homeless shelter on Feb. 25, 2015 and drove him to the scene of the crime so Kalamaras could set the blaze.
Prosecutors have alleged the fire at the Northern Boulevard office of Dr. Martin Handler was part of a plan that rival cardiologist Anthony Moschetto hatched that included a murder-for-hire plot aimed at Handler, his former business partner.
Moschetto, 55, of Sands Point, has pleaded not guilty to a 77-count indictment that also includes weapon and drug charges. He faces a separate trial.
Chmela testified he gave Kalamaras a duffel bag full of bottles of gasoline, a lighter, a key to the office building and clothes to wear that included gloves, a bandanna and a sweatshirt.
He said those items came from Nicholas Baialardo, another accomplice who is cooperating with the government and testified previously that Moschetto supplied the key.
Chmela, who works for a property damage remediation company, testified Kalamaras went to set the fire but came back to his vehicle saying someone was at the building’s front door.
But Chmela – who said he got $1,500 upfront for his role in the arson – said the two called Baialardo, and Kalamaras soon went back to the building. Five or six minutes later, Kalamaras returned and signaled for Chmela to drive away.
“He said it was lit and ‘let’s go!’” Chmela said Wednesday. “He smelled like gasoline and he was checking his left arm for burns.”
Afterward, the two met Baialardo at a Selden social club, the witness recalled. Chmela said Kalamaras got cleaned up and took a partial payment from Baialardo. Chmela then drove the defendant back to the homeless shelter.
During questioning by Kalamaras’ attorney, Steven Barnwell, Chmela acknowledged he could get up to 15 years in prison under his current plea deal, or as little as no jail time in exchange for his cooperation.
Chmela also admitted that in a March 2015 conversation with Baialardo – which Baialardo secretly recorded – that he at first had denied being part of the arson.
“I had a feeling that maybe he was wired,” the witness testified. “He was asking me questions that weren’t normal.”