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Trial in deadly Lawrence arson case begins

Caleb Lacey arrives at the Nassau County Courthouse

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

On that cold February morning, fire ripped through the two-story building in Lawrence, killing a mother and three of her children. The front staircase - the only exit from the second floor - was ablaze, and the father and two sons leaped from the windows and survived.

The killer fire was arson. Monday, Caleb Lacey, now 20, the son of a local preacher, goes on trial on charges that he set that blaze on Feb. 19, using gasoline to douse the front staircase and then driving to his job as a probationary volunteer firefighter at the local firehouse to wait for a call to action.

For each side, this promises to be a hard-contested case, with the prosecution's difficulty complicated by the inadmissibility of a key element: the confession that Nassau police say Lacey made to the arson and quadruple killing, or any police testimony about the confession.

A Nassau County judge ruled Oct. 5 that the trial jury will never know about the video or hear it - because of the poor, sometimes unintelligible, audio and Lacey's invocation of his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself before confessing to the crime.


Burden of proof

Prosecutors have said that, even without the confession, they have sufficient evidence for a conviction: Gasoline was found in the lining of Lacey's fire pants, a video shows his car near the scene of the fire when it started and he made many inconsistent statements to the police.

Lacey has been held without bail in the Nassau County jail in East Meadow.

Prosecutor Michael Canty, who has discussed the case in the past, would not speak in the lead-up to the trial.

Chris Cassar, Lacey's defense lawyer, calls the case "smoke and mirrors."

"I don't think their case was that strong even with Caleb's statement," said Cassar, of Huntington, who maintains that the confession was coerced after hours of steadfast denials.

"There are no eyewitnesses," he said. "There's no scientific evidence and there's no fingerprint evidence."


Families once neighbors

Tensions in the Mineola courtroom are sure to run high, with Lacey's parents sitting just feet away from the kin of one-time neighbor Morena Vanegas, 46, who died in the fire with her son Saul Preza, 19, and daughters Andrea, 10, and Susanna, 9.

Several survivors of the fire and Lacey's father, the Rev. Richard Lacey, an evangelical pastor at the Outreach Church of God in Christ, have been named as possible witnesses.

"It's been very difficult for the whole family," Richard Lacey said one day last week, after seven men and five women were chosen for the jury. He declined to say more.

Prosecutors have not explicitly said what they believe Lacey's motive to have been. Police said Lacey may have set the fire so that he could act as the hero who helped put it out. Police and Preza's relatives have also said Lacey may have felt threatened by Preza's friendship with Lacey's girlfriend.

Cassar disputed both of those claims.

For one thing, he said, Lacey was still on probation in the fire department and would have known that he could not take part in fighting the fire. Of Lacey's alleged jealousy of Preza, he said: "To suggest that a 19-year-old would start a fire with the intent to kill someone over a six-month relationship with a girl is incredible."

Edit Vanegas, the late Morena Vanegas' husband, wept through pretrial hearings. He was asleep at the time of the fire and jumped out of the second-story window with his 9-year-old son in his arms, he and police have said. Another son, 12, jumped as well.

In an interview last week, he spoke of his unremitting grief. "My sons, all the time they ask about their mother. I know they've needed her," he said. "Every day, to think that my family is not in this world. . . . He's ruined my life. Everything I had in this world, from one moment to the next, is gone. I ask myself, 'Why has this happened to me?' "

Relatives of Morena Vanegas say they retain hope of a conviction. But they add that their faith in the justice system has been shaken.

"Sometimes we ask ourselves whether justice is being served," said Neftali Chavez, Morena Vanegas' brother-in-law. "Because there were four people who were killed."

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