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Attorney: Lawrence fire suspect's confession was coerced

Caleb Lacey arrives at the Nassau County Courthouse

Caleb Lacey arrives at the Nassau County Courthouse for his arraignment. (March 24, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Three days after a fatal Lawrence fire, two pairs of detectives separately grilled probationary firefighter Caleb Lacey at the Lawrence-Cedarhurst fire station - with at least one detective calling him a liar - but the Lawrence man did not admit setting the Feb. 19 fire that killed four members of one family, according to testimony Thursday at a pretrial hearing in Nassau County Court.

Lacey is charged with murder and arson in the house fire that killed Morena Vanegas, 46, and her children, Preza, 19, Andrea, 10, and Susanna, 9.

Lacey's attorney, Chris Cassar of Huntington, is contending that a videotaped confession police secured from Lacey after many hours of questioning at the homicide squad was coerced. Lacey was arrested March 20.

Thursday, Nassau Police Det. William Brosnan testified in Judge Jerald Carter's courtroom that he and Det. James McGinn interviewed Lacey for nearly two hours on Feb. 22, after two other detectives already had questioned him.

Carter will decide whether police had probable cause to arrest Lacey.

Brosnan's testimony differed somewhat from that offered earlier this week by Det. Peter McGinn, who testified that Lacey said one of the victims of the fire, Saul Preza, had raped Lacey's girlfriend.

Brosnan, under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Michael Canty, testified that Lacey said Preza once flashed gang signs at him as he drove in the neighborhood, and that Lacey told Brosnan that he had restrained himself from attacking Preza for that gesture.

Brosnan testified that's when he told Lacey that either Lacey or one of the other firefighters were lying.

He said he cited to Lacey an account from another firefighter who had told detectives that Lacey said he actually beat up Preza during that gang-sign incident. Under questioning on Feb. 22, Lacey admitted to Brosnan that he told that tale to other firefighters "to make himself look tough," Brosnan testified Thursday.

Brosnan also testified that he had accused Lacey of being untruthful when Lacey told him he often would drive around late at night because he was unable to sleep, and that he would end up at the fire station.

Brosnan testified he had not seen data that would disprove Lacey's statement. But he had been told it could not be true because police had obtained electronic records of Lacey's movements into and out of the firehouse, he testified, and he called Lacey a liar anyway.

"You were calling him a liar and you weren't sure if the facts were true or not?" Cassar asked. "Yes," Brosnan said.

Brosnan testified that, at one point in the questioning, after Lacey had admitted to setting a fire as a 12-year-old boy and starting another one in which he burned some debris in a Dumpster, Brosnan accused Lacey of setting several fires in his own neighborhood just before the fatal one.

"To me, that looks like you're trying to make yourself look like a hero," Brosnan testified he said to Lacey.

"Did you have any proof that connected Caleb Lacey to those fires?" Cassar asked, referring to the fires in the neighborhood.

"I did not," Brosnan said.

Prosecutors theorize that Lacey set the Feb. 19 fire in order to save the occupants of the home and be a hero.

The hearing continues Friday.


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