A series of intentionally set fires at abandoned houses in Central Islip led a Suffolk police arson detective to focus on the firefighters who were responding to these fires, the detective testified Monday in Riverhead at the trial of two of those firefighters.
Retired Det. Robert Berretta said similarities among the fires in late 2017 -- all were set between midnight and dawn and all were near the Central Islip Fire Department's Wheeler Road fire house -- led him to question dozens of volunteers in December of that year. Berretta testified at the trial of Stephen Hernandez, 25, of Central Islip, and Weldon Drayton Jr., 35, of Brentwood, before state Supreme Court Justice John Collins.
Almost all the volunteers gave him no information, Berretta said during questioning by Assistant District Attorney Luigi Belcastro. One of them suggested he look at a guy known to firefighters as "Jamal the buff," but Berretta said the investigation showed he "was what we term an ambulance chaser," someone who followed firefighters on ambulance calls and pretended to be an emergency medical technician. But he was at none of the fires, Berretta said.
Eventually, in March 2018, Berretta said three firefighters -- Hernandez; Austin Lehman, 20, of Central Islip; and Shawn Key, 28, of North Babylon -- were charged. Lehman admitted setting all the fires, has since pleaded guilty and is expected to testify in this trial. Berretta testified that Key told him he was drunk in Lehman's car when Lehman and another firefighter he didn't identify filled water bottles with gasoline and went to a house to set it on fire. Charges against Key have since been dropped.
Berretta said that Lehman's roommate, Jonathan Martinez, another firefighter, told him that Lehman and Hernandez used to joke about setting fires."They would say, 'We need a job tonight,' " Martinez said, according to Berretta. "'After a while I began to think they had something to do with the fires."'
Defense attorneys for Hernandez and Drayton suggested during their cross-examinations that Berretta's investigation didn't amount to much beyond the word of Lehman and his friends.
For example, Berretta found a neighbor's video of one fire on Oakdale Road showed the explosive flash when the fire started. But during questioning by Drayton's attorney, Stephen McCarthy Jr. of Manhattan, he acknowledged that he didn't examine the video during the preceeding hours, which might have showed who was casing the abandoned house or who drove to and away from it.
Stephen Politi of Central Islip, Hernandez' lawyer, went further, asking Berretta why he took no notes of interviews with firefighters.
"Interviews are quick if they don't want to talk to you," Berretta said. Most firefighters claimed to know nothing about who set the fires, he said.
"The truth of the matter, sir, is that not one of the individuals gave you even a drop of information that Mr. Hernandez or Mr. Drayton were involved in any of these fires, correct?" Politi asked.
"That is correct," Berretta said.
Politi also asked if he followed up after Lehman told him that he and others went to area gas stations to fill water bottles with gasoline. Berretta said he did not do that, even though gas stations often have extensive video surveillance system, and he did not look at video from the fire house on those days. Nor did he go back to the neighbor who had already supplied some video to see if there was more, he said.
Politi asked if it would be good to get as much video as possible to catch the right suspects.
"It might have been helpful," Berretta said.
Berretta said he learned that firefighters often communicated with each via group text messages, on Snapchat and other social media. He told Politi he did not look for transcripts of those conversations.
Berretta said he eventually caught up with "Jamal the buff" at a mental health facility and spoke to him. Berretta told Politi he did not know then that Jamal had a history of lighting things on fire and he took no notes of his interview.
"You're not a note-taker, are you, detective?" Politi asked.
"I like taking notes if it's important," Berretta replied.