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Lawyers give closing arguments in doc’s office arson case

James Kalamaras, accused of setting fire to a

James Kalamaras, accused of setting fire to a doctor's office as part of an arson plot involving a rival doctor, leaves court after the opening of his trial on Monday, April 25, 2016, in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A prosecutor told jurors Monday an arson defendant’s own words on a recorded phone call and eyewitness testimony were enough to convict him for his role in a physician’s plot to burn down a rival doctor’s Great Neck office.

But an attorney for defendant James Kalamaras suggested the recording was a setup by two government cooperators who were framing his client and also attacked the eyewitness’ reliability.

Kalamaras, 42, a tattoo artist and felon from Suffolk County, is facing up to life in prison if jurors find him guilty at his trial on arson, burglary and criminal mischief charges.

Nassau prosecutors have alleged Dr. Anthony Moschetto orchestrated the Feb. 25, 2015, fire Kalamaras is accused of setting at cardiologist Martin Handler’s Northern Boulevard office. Testimony showed the fire came after the doctors’ decades-long business relationship broke up amid a dispute involving money.

Moschetto, who has pleaded not guilty to 77 charges and faces a separate trial, even went so far as to contract a hit on Handler’s life, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutor Anne Donnelly depicted Kalamaras in Monday’s closing arguments as a financially destitute homeless man who lit the fire to make money while striving to get on Moschetto’s permanent payroll.

“This crime goes far deeper, into much deeper pockets,” the prosecutor said of Moschetto. “You do one job for him and you’re in.”

Prosecutors claim Moschetto hired accomplice Nicholas Baialardo — with whom Moschetto also allegedly trafficked in drugs and guns — to arrange the fire. They’ve alleged Baialardo recruited James Chmela as the getaway driver and Kalamaras as the fire starter.

But defense attorney Steven Barnwell has depicted Baialardo and Chmela, who both pleaded guilty and became government witnesses, as admitted criminals who were getting sweetheart deals for their testimony.

Barnwell suggested a recorded call Baialardo told jurors was a conversation between himself and Kalamaras was a way for Baialardo and Chmela to frame his client as the arsonist. By the time the recording was made, Baialardo had become a police informant.

“Look at who they want you to believe to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barnwell said.

The defense attorney also said prosecutors lacked DNA evidence and he tried to turn suspicion toward Chmela as the possible fire starter.

Barnwell cited Chmela’s testimony that he was present at the scene, and had admitted that the perpetrator on surveillance video of the fire was wearing a hooded sweatshirt belonging to him.

The defense attorney also depicted testimony from eyewitness Jose Santiago as unreliable.

Barnwell said Santiago first identified two other people in police photo packs in connection with the suspect he’d seen the night of the fire, before picking out Kalamaras only after seeing a third photo set.

But Donnelly said Santiago only had said the first two people “looked like the guy” from the scene, before saying of Kalamaras: “That’s the guy.”

She also told jurors Kalamaras incriminated himself on the recorded call with Baialardo, including by saying he could “do it again in a way that it’s more effective” while discussing a fire.

“The fact is, there are two things, try as he might, the defendant can’t get around — the person who made eye contact with him and his own words,” Donnelly said.

Jurors are expected to start deliberations Tuesday.

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