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Volunteer fireman gets 25 year to life for arson murders

April 9, 2010 3:45:24 PM PDT
A rookie volunteer firefighter convicted of setting a blaze that killed a mother and three of her children in what prosecutors said was a twisted bid to become a hero again protested his innocence Friday as he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Caleb Lacey, who was convicted of four counts each of murder and manslaughter plus arson, spoke barely above a whisper in a jammed courtroom filled with people wiping away tears.

His family and supporters were on one side of the gallery. The victims' family and friends wearing T-shirts with photos of their loved ones on the other. A center row largely filled with reporters separated the sides.

"Only God knows the 100 percent truth," the 20-year-old former member of the Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department told Nassau County Court Judge Jerald Carter. "I did not commit these crimes."

The fire, several doors from Lacey's home in Lawrence, N.Y., killed Morena Vanegas, 46; her daughters Susanna and Andrea Vanegas, ages 9 and 13; and her 19-year-old son, Saul Presa. Morena Vanegas' husband, Edit, and two other young sons fled the apartment by climbing out a rear window.

Prosecutors said Lacey set the fire in a stairwell leading to apartments above a coin-operated laundry. It was the only entrance and exit for tenants on the second floor; a fire escape had previously been removed from the building. They said after setting the fire, he raced to the nearby firehouse and donned his gear before the alarm had even sounded.

Before Lacey spoke, a prosecutor read letters from members of the victims' family asking for the maximum sentence.

A videotape of Edit Vanegas was played. Officials said Vanegas recorded the statement because he feared he would become too distraught in the courtroom. When Lacey was convicted in February, Vanegas burst out of the courtroom writhing on the floor in grief.

America Chavez, the sister of Morena Vanegas, repeatedly referred to Lacey as an "evil monster" as she went on to describe how her sister was a loving mother of the two young girls, as well as her older son.

"You knew they were sleeping when you lit that fire," Chavez said directly to Lacey, who remained stoic and stared straight ahead. She added that her two young nephews have undergone counseling since the tragedy. The boys wiped away tears from the third row of the gallery as she spoke.

"They are so scared to go to sleep thinking of their mother and sisters."

The Rev. Richard Lacey, pastor of the Outreach Church of God in Christ, which is located up the street from where the fire occurred, said outside the courtroom that he supported his son's claims of innocence and was confident the conviction would eventually be overturned on appeal.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Canty said during the trial that after Lacey joined the fire department in October 2008, he became frustrated after answering 90 emergency calls, none of which were active fires. He also noted that in Lacey's brief tenure with the department, he had never responded to any calls between midnight and 7 a.m., until the morning of the fatal blaze.

The judge said that despite Lacey's protests of innocence, he had concluded the jury reached the appropriate verdict, calling the firefighter's actions "a juvenile act."

Carter said in considering a sentence, he repeatedly viewed a videotape introduced at trial that showed Lacey arriving at the Lawrence-Cedarhurst firehouse two minutes before an alarm about the fire. Before any other firefighters had arrived, Lacey was already dressed in his gear.

"I don't understand why Caleb Lacey had gotten dressed in full battle gear for a general alarm call," Carter said. "The only person that was running around was Caleb."

The judge also addressed prosecutors' allegations that Lacey sought to be seen as a hero.

"I don't know what the motivation was," the judge said. "Heroes don't create danger, they confront it."


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