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Emotions flow as volunteer firefighter is sentenced on arson, murder charges

Edit Vanegas and his sister-in-law, America Chavez, spoke after the sentencing. Vanegas lost his wife and three of their children. Edit Vanegas and his sister-in-law, America Chavez, spoke after the sentencing. Vanegas lost his wife and three of their children. (Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press)
Associated Press / April 10, 2010

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MINEOLA, N.Y. — 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 declared his innocence yesterday 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 February 2009 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 son, Saul Presa, 19. Morena Vanegas’s 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 laundromat. 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.

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.

“You knew they were sleeping when you lit that fire,’’ Chavez said directly to Lacey, who remained stoic and stared straight ahead.