By Steve Weinstein
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By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
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Shortly before dawn on February 19, Edit Vanegas, sleeping with the rest of his family in a bedroom all shared on the second floor of a house in Lawrence, Long Island, suddenly awoke to a sense of something burning and the suffocating smell of smoke. He woke up his 13-year-old son, Eddie, and screamed at his wife, Morena, to grab their two girls. Edit and Eddie ran to a bedroom window. But there was no fire escape—even though their landlord had been ordered the previous year to build one. As the house burned down, Edit snatched his nine-year-old son, Leonel, out of bed, tucked him under his arm, and leaped out of the window. They fell two stories, but happened to land on a couch that neighbors had left out as trash. Eddie jumped after them. Leonel later recalled that it felt as if his feet were cracking apart when his brother landed on them.
Rushing to the blaze that morning was the Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department, a volunteer crew that included 19-year-old Caleb Lacey, son of a locally well-known Pentecostal preacher and a neighbor of the Vanegas family for six years. As a probationary firefighter in the all-volunteer department, Caleb wasn't permitted to enter the burning building, so he held the hydrant secure for his colleagues.
Safe from the blaze, Eddie didn't see his mother, Morena, or his sisters, 10-year-old Andrea and Leonel's twin sister, Susanna. He didn't see his half-brother, 20-year-old Saul Preza, who was sleeping in the living room. The next time he saw them, their bodies were blackened beyond recognition.
Three days later, at the funeral for the Vanegas victims, Caleb Lacey showed up and shook hands with the survivors. With what the family remembers as red, tearful eyes, he asked Eddie if he was OK.
Less than two weeks later, Caleb was arrested and charged with arson and second-degree murder—it would have been even more serious had two tenants not escaped with their lives. Nassau County authorities say Caleb confessed during a lengthy interrogation, and they told reporters at the time that he had doused the bottom of the house's staircase—the only exit from the second floor—with gasoline, set it on fire, went to the fire station to await the 911 call, and responded less than half an hour later to the call with the crew. The case's lead investigator told reporters that it was the "hero" complex, a case of a firefighter setting fires so he can douse them and become a hero in his community. The tabloids blared: "Cops: Long Island Firebug Wanted to Be Hero."
Many people in the small enclave of low-income Lawrence—literally on the other side of the tracks from the core of the wealthy suburb—were stunned at the arrest. But not necessarily because Caleb had seemed a typical teen: He wasn't. Born with one leg shorter than the other, slow in school, and a loner who did odd jobs in the neighborhood, the boy was unusual. "He would try to be social, but everyone pushed him away," says neighbor Kevin Pruitt. "He would keep to himself 'cause everyone thought he was weird—even though he didn't want to be weird."
People familiar with Caleb's behavior in school say he was very friendly in certain ways, regularly popping in to the school's guidance department to say hello to administrators. But those who knew his behavior more intimately describe him as a troubled kid—someone who had a sneaky and edgy side: He had been caught in a number of petty thefts, such as stealing bikes and breaking into lockers.
The most troubling incident, in light of what he is now accused of, is that he had been suspended from school for pulling a fire alarm. The suspension resulted in his being held back a year in school. Despite that red flag, he was taken on as a firefighter. Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department officials won't comment.
Elaine Schick, a manager at Life Fitness, a gym across the street from the Vanegases and Laceys where Caleb did odd jobs for years, recalls that Caleb was very proud of being in the Fire Department and would often come by to talk about it. She describes him as someone who was always helpful and eager to please, but also immature and naive: "In some ways, he was a normal kid—he was unassuming and quiet. He was humble," she says. "But in other ways, there was something off."
Way off, if what authorities say about Caleb's confession is to be believed: During his interrogation regarding the fatal fire, authorities have said, he also confessed to having torched a Dumpster behind the fitness center. That fire was set in May 2008, just before he became a firefighter, but it had never been reported.
In a brief jailhouse interview, Caleb tells the Voice that he is innocent: "The whole fire—there was something more to it," he says. "I don't know what, but there was something more to it."
The interrogation was very long, about eight hours, he recalls, and he hadn't eaten. He says he doesn't remember much of that day of grilling beyond seeing daylight changing into night through the bathroom window. Shaking his head, he says he "doesn't know" why he confessed.