Wannabe-Hero Firefighter Gets 25 to Life for Fire That Killed Mom, Kids

Mother, three of her children, perished in blaze

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Caleb Lacey

    A volunteer firefighter has been sentenced to 25 years to life for setting a Long Island fire that killed a mother and three of her children.

    Caleb Lacey, 20, was convicted of murder. He continued to insist Friday that he was not guilty.

    Emotions ran high in the courtroom. Children who survived the fire were in the audience, crying.

    The man who lost his wife and children also was there. He had recorded his statement, because he was too distraught to make it in court.

    Lacey was found guilty of four counts each of murder and manslaughter for setting the Feb. 19, 2009, fire in a stairwell leading to apartments above a coin-operated laundry in Lawrence, N.Y. It was the only entrance and exit for tenants on the second floor; a fire escape had previously been removed from the building.

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

    Prosecutors said the rookie set the fire so he could be one of the first responders and be viewed as a hero.

    During deliberations, jurors repeatedly asked to review videos taken by security cameras near the laundry, including what prosecutors said were images of Lacey's car stopped outside.

    One video 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.

    Assistant District Attorney Michael Canty said Lacey joined the fire department in October 2008 but 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.

    Canty said that gasoline was found on Lacey's "bunker gear'' and pointed to testimony during the trial from experts who said the cause was neither accidental or electrical.

    Defense attorney Christopher Cassar suggested that detectives had failed to investigate Edit Vanegas as a suspect. Vanegas told jurors that he and his wife had been having marriage difficulties, but he vehemently denied any assertion he was involved in setting the fire.

    Prosecutors were barred by the judge from introducing a videotape of Lacey reportedly admitting to setting the fire because the sound quality was poor.

    "The evidence in this case was overwhelming,'' District Attorney Kathleen Rice said after the verdict.