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Detective: Fire suspect's dad put son in touch with cops

Caleb Lacey arrives at the Nassau County Courthouse

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

Days before Caleb Lacey became a suspect in the Lawrence fire that killed four people in February, it was Lacey's father who first put his son in touch with police, a detective testified Monday.

Lacey's father, the Rev. Richard Lacey, was worried about his son, a volunteer firefighter, because the 19-year-old said he was still shaken after stepping over the bodies of four of his neighbors while fighting a fire at their home, Nassau Det. Peter McGinn said. When McGinn stopped by the Lacey home on a routine matter after the fire, Richard Lacey asked if he would mind talking to his distraught son, McGinn said.

But as soon as McGinn started his informal chat with Caleb Lacey, something seemed amiss, McGinn testified Monday. Lacey immediately began speaking harshly about one of his dead neighbors, Saul Preza, calling him a "pimp," and saying he had raped Lacey's girlfriend. But when police spoke to Lacey's girlfriend, she said Preza had only kissed her, and that she hadn't protested, McGinn said.

McGinn's suspicions were amplified when he spoke to other volunteers in the Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department, and they said Lacey had never been in the burning house at all.

Lacey, now 20, of Lawrence, has since been charged with murder and arson in the Feb. 19 fire that killed Morena Vanegas, 46, and her children, Preza, 19, Andrea, 10, and Susanna, 9.

Police said he doused a staircase with gasoline, lit it and went to the Lawrence-Cedarhurst firehouse to await the 911 call.

McGinn testified in pretrial hearings, which are expected to last about two weeks.

After the hearings, Nassau County Judge Jerald Carter will decide whether police had probable cause to arrest Lacey. He will also decide whether evidence in the case and Lacey's statement to police, which police say includes a full confession to the crime, were gathered properly and should be seen by a jury at trial.

Lacey's was the first police interrogation videotaped from beginning to end by the Nassau Police Department as part of a new policy to do so in all homicide and serious robbery cases. Carter has asked that the entire interview, which lasts more than eight hours, be played in court at the hearing.

Lacey's lawyer, Chris Cassar of Huntington, has said Lacey's confession was coerced.

In addition to learning that Lacey, who was still a probationary firefighter, hadn't been allowed inside the burning house, McGinn said he was told Lacey's job had been to attach the fire hose to the hydrant - and he did that incorrectly. It was a mistake that cost firefighters seconds at most - not a major error - but it embarrassed Lacey, McGinn said.

Three days after the fire, detectives arrested Lacey.

"I asked him straight out, did you have anything to do with this fire?" McGinn testified, recalling an exchange he said took place after Lacey was read his rights. He said Lacey said no.

"I said, is it possible the fire was a mistake, or a prank gone wrong?" McGinn said. "He didn't answer."

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