By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
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Some people in the neighborhood wonder whether there's more to what happened. The Lacey and Vanegas families, both wrapped up in their various lives and in their separate church activities (Morena Vanegas was an evangelical Protestant), barely knew one another. "You know, they were the neighbors," Eleanor says. Sometimes, Caleb would play soccer with the Vanegas kids. Once, Leonel Vanegas says, Caleb became annoyed at him in a soccer game and threw him in the garbage can.
Morena Vanegas, a home health aide, and Edit, who buses tables at an Italian restaurant in Long Beach, were immigrants from El Salvador who had met dancing merengue at a Long Island disco eight years prior. Though he has been in the U.S. since the '80s, Edit does not speak English. The family has struggled to make ends meet: Over the years, Morena, who was 46 when she died, had a variety of jobs—first as a home health aide; later, selling advertisements for a local Spanish-language newspaper. Though she was poor, she was known in the neighborhood as someone who would help others out. When she cooked, she invited the neighbors to come in and have dinner. And Edit wasn't always around; when he wasn't living with the family, they went on food stamps.
If there was a connection between the Laceys and the Vanegases, it was between Caleb and Saul Preza (Morena Vanegas's son from a previous relationship)—and even that connection seems loose. Both boys attended Lawrence High School, but were opposites in many ways. Saul was a "bad boy," outgoing and popular with girls, and had a son, who lived with his mother in Port Jefferson. Neighbor Pruitt says Caleb had few friends and that, when he did socialize, he was known as a hanger-on. Both Caleb and Saul were in special-ed classes, and they had shop class together, but no one characterizes them as being friends. Among the murmur of speculation in the Lawrence neighborhood is that Saul and Caleb may have vied for the same girl, that perhaps Saul had stepped over the line with Caleb's girlfriend—his first—but there is no substantiation of it.
As far as anyone knows at this point, there was nothing particular brewing between the families as of mid-February 2009. Caleb had joined the fire department several months before and had enrolled in a mandatory 66-hour training course, but it is unclear whether he had taken any classes. All fire departments in New York State require that trainees go through a criminal background check, but there isn't much vetting beyond that, says Chief John Brown, who runs the fire training vocational school where Caleb had enrolled.
Besides registration and a background check, for people who go through firefighting training courses, there is no particular screening process to weed out potential arsonists, says Brown. If Caleb did set the fatal fire, he wouldn't be the first firefighter to have done so. "There's a joke here in the academy," Brown says, "that there's a fine line between the arsonist and the firefighter—because, well, what we do here is set fires. We like fire. We set five buildings on fire every night."
The night before the fatal fire, Caleb's parents were out of the country—"We were receiving prayer in the Virgin Islands," says Eleanor—and Morena Vanegas was making dinner for her kids. The Salvadoran pancakes known as pupusas were her specialty, and she served them along with rice, beans, and chicken fingers with tomatoes. Around 10 p.m., she kissed Leonel goodnight. The boy and his twin sister stayed up a little while longer, playing volleyball with a tiny net they set up in the cramped apartment. In the other room, Eddie called his father to see if he was going to be coming home from work that night. Edit told his son that he was planning to stay with a cousin. But at around 1:30 a.m., Edit came home anyway. Sometime around 4:30 a.m., Saul arrived home from his job as a waiter in a Hempstead pizza shop. As authorities later pieced it together, it wasn't very long after Saul got home that someone entered the house, splashed gasoline on the staircase, and lit it on fire.
It is not yet known what first made the Nassau cops suspect Caleb, but when he got a call for a tree-cutting job in the neighborhood early one morning, the cops were waiting and took him in for questioning. "They kidnapped him," Reverend Lacey says.
The questioning that led to Caleb's confession lasted for eight hours, seven of which were videotaped. The Laceys say they called the police station twice that day after their son disappeared, but weren't told he was being interrogated. Reverend Lacey says Caleb "asked for a lawyer, and they didn't give him one." But the D.A.'s office says Caleb never asked for a lawyer. "They were working on him mentally, trying to break him down for hours," says Reverend Lacey. "They want to close a case. They aren't concerned with catching a criminal."