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Jury in arson-murder case may be near a verdict

On the eve of the first anniversary of a horrific house fire that killed a Lawrence mother and three of her children, it appeared last night that the jury charged with deciding the fate of Caleb Lacey, the man accused of setting that fire, might be close to a verdict.

In a note sent to Judge Jerald Carter at the end of the day, jurors said, "We the jurors need to break for the day and sleep on our decision."

Earlier, jurors, who have been deliberating since Feb. 9 over whether Lacey, 20, of Lawrence is guilty of arson and murder, were about to be discharged for the night about 6 p.m. when they asked for a few more minutes to deliberate.

At that news, the corridor of the already-closed Mineola courthouse filled with police, prosecutors, and family and friends of both Lacey and the victims of the fire, everyone expecting a verdict was imminent.

But at almost 7 p.m., as Lacey's parents prayed in the first row of the courtroom, the jury asked to return home for the night and sent the note to Carter.

One juror also said she was not feeling well and might not be able to return to court today. But after speaking with the judge and calling a doctor, she told the judge she thought she could go on.

Carter told jurors to return to court Friday at 11 a.m.

Relatives of Morena Vanegas, 46, who died with her children, Saul Preza, 19, Andrea, 10, and Susanna, 9, were astounded by the coincidence that a verdict could be reached on the anniversary of their loved ones' deaths.

They planned to visit the family's graves before court in the morning and mourn them at a vigil at the site of the deadly fire in the evening. "I can't believe it's already a year," said Vanegas' sister, America Chavez. "For me, it still seems like yesterday."

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