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Long IslandNassau

Detective: Lacey account of fire contradicted others'

Something seemed wrong about volunteer firefighter Caleb Lacey's account of a fatal fire near his house in North Lawrence even before he became a suspect in the case, a Nassau detective testified Wednesday.

"He said he had been friends with the two little girls who died, and . . . that he had stepped over their bodies" while fighting the fire, Nassau Det. Peter McGinn said in court. But when McGinn spoke with other firefighters in the Lawrence-Cedarhurst department, they said that Lacey, who was a probationary firefighter at the time, had never entered the burning building, he testified.

Lacey, now 20, is on trial for arson and murder on charges that he set the Feb. 19 fire that killed Morena Vanegas, 46, and her children, Saul Preza, 19, Andrea, 10, and Susanna, 9. His lawyer has said he is innocent and that police took advantage of his naiveté to make him the fall guy for murders he didn't commit.

McGinn said it was Lacey's father, the Rev. Richard Lacey, who first put him in touch with Caleb on the night of the fire, with the minister saying his son was upset by what he had seen on the day of the fire and needed someone to talk to.

Although that first contact was friendly and informal, McGinn said the conversation quickly took a strange turn.

Lacey began speaking harshly about Preza, calling him a "pimp" and saying that he had once caught Preza trying to rape Lacey's girlfriend. When police followed up with Lacey's girlfriend, she denied that Preza had ever harmed her. She also wrote flattering things about Preza on her MySpace page after he died, the detective said.

McGinn said Lacey also gave conflicting accounts of when he had arrived at the firehouse on the morning of the fire. McGinn said when he and another detective, Carl Re, went back to interview Lacey a second time three days later, the inconsistencies became too overwhelming to ignore. During that interview, they read Lacey his rights, McGinn testified.

For one thing, Lacey gave two accounts of how he spent the night before the fire, McGinn testified. During his first talk with McGinn, Lacey said he had been driving around for hours in the middle of the night, "trying to imagine his mother's face in the stars."

During the second interview, on Feb. 22, Lacey said he woke up at about 4:30 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep, so he headed to the firehouse, McGinn testified. He said he arrived at the firehouse at about 5:10 a.m., McGinn said.

When McGinn asked why he had taken 40 minutes to drive less than a mile, Lacey said he went the long way, and sped up and down the highway.

Thursday, Lacey's lawyer is expected to cross-examine McGinn.