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Captain's testimony: Lacey distracted before fatal fire

The night before prosecutors say volunteer firefighter Caleb Lacey set fire to his neighbors' home, he was anxious and distracted at a fire department outing at a local bowling alley, and kept missing his turn to bowl, a fire captain testified Monday.

"I said, 'If you have some place to be, get out of here," Capt. Anthony Rivelli testified at Lacey's trial on murder and arson charges.

Just hours later, in the predawn hours of Feb. 19, 2009, Rivelli was battling a fire that had engulfed a Lawrence apartment, he testified.

"There was fire over our heads," Rivelli said, noting that he found several bodies, but did not remove them because it was obvious that they were beyond help. "I had to seek refuge in the bathroom, because the fire became very hot."

Morena Vanegas, 46, and three of her children, Susanna Vanegas, 9, Andrea Vanegas, 13, and Saul Preza, 19 died in the blaze. Vanegas' husband and other two sons escaped by jumping out of a window.

Rivelli testified that he saw Lacey at that predawn call, an unusual occurrence.

"I never observed him at a call in the middle of the night," Rivelli testified. Rivelli said between October 2008 and February 2009, Lacey had responded to only one other call between midnight and 7 a.m.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Michael Canty said Lacey almost always missed middle-of-the-night fire calls, and was often ribbed about it by his colleagues.

Canty said Lacey set the Feb. 19 fire and then drove straight to the fire house, arriving minutes before the alarm sounded.

Lacey's defense lawyer, Christopher Cassar of Huntington, has said that Lacey, who was still on probation, would have known that he would not be allowed inside the burning building, and thus he would not have expected to play the hero. Cassar also objected to Rivelli's testimony, saying that the captain had no personal knowledge of Lacey's attendance record. In response, Nassau County Judge Jerald Carter asked Canty to submit the fire department's call sheets, which Canty said he will do.

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