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Victims' husband, dad testifies in Lawrence murder trial

Edit Vanegas leaves court after giving testimony in

Edit Vanegas leaves court after giving testimony in Caleb Lacey's murder trial in Mineola. (Jan. 26, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Edit Vanegas woke up that February morning to a room filled with smoke.

"I saw the light of fire and I was screaming and calling my wife," Vanegas said Tuesday, testifying in the arson and murder trial of Caleb Lacey, the man accused of setting the fire that killed Vanegas' wife, two daughters and stepson. "I just wanted to get out."

>> PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of the fire, funeral and trial

But visibility was poor, and Vanegas, who was sleeping in a bed with his then-9-year-old son Leonel at the time, could not see where his two daughters, Susanna and Andrea, ages 9 and 13, were, he testified. He grabbed his older son, Manases, then 12, and lowered him out a back window of the second-story Lawrence apartment, he said. Then he jumped out the window, holding Leonel, he said.

When the three were safely out, Edit Vanegas said he could hear his daughters still inside the burning apartment, screaming, he testified Tuesday.

"They were screaming, 'Daddy! Please help us. We are getting burned,' " Vanegas testified through a translator. He cried many times in interviews leading up to the trial but remained composed on the stand, his face set in a grimace.

Lacey, 20, a probationary volunteer firefighter who lived just yards from the Vanegas family, is charged with arson and murder in the Feb. 19, 2009, blaze. Prosecutor Michael Canty has said that Lacey set the fire, then drove to the Lawrence-Cedarhurst firehouse so that he could look like a hero when he helped put it out.

Lacey's defense lawyer, Christopher Cassar of Huntington, said in his opening statement Monday that police did not properly investigate Edit Vanegas as a suspect in the case. He said Vanegas and his wife, Morena, 46, had been separated months earlier, and noted that Edit Vanegas was "the last one into the house that night, and the first one out."

Edit Vanegas has said he and his wife had resolved their differences and were living happily as a family. Morena Vanegas' sister, America Chavez, said Cassar's implication is ridiculous.

"They have nothing else to say, so they're trying to change the story. But he [Lacey] is the one that did it," she said outside court. This week, Edit Vanegas called Cassar's implication "pure lies."

In his cross-examination, Cassar asked Edit Vanegas if it was true that his wife took out an order of protection against him in 2006, and called police to the house the same year when he refused to leave. Vanegas said that was true, but they had moved beyond that disagreement. Vanegas also denied police were called to the house in 2008.

Nassau County Police Officer Michael Arpaia, who also testified Tuesday, said he remembered seeing Edit Vanegas standing in the lot behind the home when he arrived at the burning building. "He was standing there in bare feet," Arpaia said. "He had a look on his face of total shock and bewilderment."

>> PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of the fire, funeral and trial