His lawyer contends that the confession was coerced and inaudible, and he'll have a chance to argue that at a court hearing scheduled for later this month. The Nassau County District Attorney's Office counters that, while some parts of the taped confession are muffled, Caleb's admission of guilt is absolutely clear. Eric Phillips, a spokesman for the D.A., says that the youth not only admits his guilt but also describes how he committed the crime step by step, in great detail.

Caleb says he thinks about the Vanegas family every day. Is he scared of the future? "That's not up to me," he says. Not much of a Bible reader before, despite his father's being a preacher, Caleb has been reading the Bible, and also having "twisted dreams." While in jail, he has been writing letters to Kaitlyn Russo, a senior at Lawrence High School who works at Life Fitness. Russo says that she and Caleb weren't really friends in school, but that she knew him from the gym. He would park his car in her friend's driveway, linger, and sometimes come up and hang out.

"He was under a lot of pressure, always, to try and do the right thing," says Russo. "He wasn't a genius. He was always trying to be the best because of who his father was, and that's one of the reasons why I don't think he would do that—because of his father."

Scene of the crime: The Vanegas home
Sam Lewis
Scene of the crime: The Vanegas home
Accused of deadly arson: Caleb Lacey
Daily News Pix
Accused of deadly arson: Caleb Lacey

In his letters, she says, Caleb proclaims his innocence. "He says he's looking up to 'Him,' " Russo says. "He's reading the Bible. He says it's cold, that he sleeps on the floor. He says everyone is against him."

Russo, who says the two have become close since he went to jail, adds, "His family is mad at him. They want to believe, because that's their son. At the same time, everything is pointing at him."

"This whole thing has happened in the service of the Gospel," Caleb's father, Reverend Richard Lacey says in the Southern drawl of his native Arkansas while sitting on a folding chair after services one recent night at the Outreach Church of God in Christ. His wife, Eleanor, lowers her head. "This has done a job on us," she concedes, looking tired. Every service ends with a prayer circle. People offer benedictions for those in need of help. For months now, Richard and Eleanor have especially asked God to bless and protect their son.

Of the Laceys' five children, Caleb is the only one who was adopted—they took him in as a baby after his parents died in circumstances that are kept a family secret. The upbringing of the Lacey children was strict and revolved around the church. The Church of God in Christ is both the largest African-American denomination and largest Pentecostal denomination in the country; its churches are renowned for their believers' fervent, vocal faith and stirring music. Caleb played drums in the church band on Sundays.

Reverend Lacey's austere church sits on Lawrence Avenue, a shabby stretch that includes three other churches, a bodega, and a plumbing supply company. On one side of the church is a laundromat emblazoned with the slogan "Jesus Christ the Word." Across the street is the house formerly occupied by the Vanegas family. The house is now a boarded-up, burned-out shell; a shrine of flowers lay on the sidewalk for months after the fire. One door down is the Laceys' home.

There was a time when Caleb used to occasionally hang out with the Vanegases. That was when people saw him as an industrious, if socially awkward, teen, hiring himself out to do odd jobs.

When he was 12, Caleb approached Gerry Herris, the owner of Herris Brothers Tree Service, and asked him for help in starting his own business. Herris showed him how to attach a cart to the back of his tricycle. Caleb added a sign, and "Lacey's Tree-Trimming Service" was born.

The boy apparently loved to work. At age 12, he wrote a personal code of conduct for his business. The code, which he saved for many years, had 16 points, among them reminders to work hard, be safe, "don't act crazy when working," "bring money for lunch," and "do the job right."

Over the years, as Caleb's business grew, he often used Herris's truck to go on jobs in the neighborhood. He appeared to be a born tinkerer: "He was always making little inventions," Herris recalls. "I used to ask him, 'Don't the kids at school make fun of you? Showing up at school on this tricycle with all these contraptions on it?' But he said he didn't care."

Herris says that because of Caleb's foot problem, he didn't play sports. The boy's emotional growth was also stunted. From time to time, he wouldn't bring back the equipment he borrowed and would lie about it—something Herris describes as innocent teenage lying. "You could just tell by his body language that he was lying," he says, adding that he didn't hold it against Caleb. When he heard the news about Caleb's arrest, he says, his heart dropped. From time to time, he visits him in jail: "I asked him: 'Did you do it?' He said no. I believe him," he says. "And, of course, they are going to question anyone. And Caleb, maybe being a bit slow, and being 19, he was scared out of his mind."

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