A Teen Volunteer Firefighter Is Accused of Sending His Neighbors Up in Smoke


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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

The camouflage pants that Caleb wore on the day of the incident were found to contain the presence of an accelerant, authorities say, though the D.A.’s office won’t confirm whether the accelerant is gasoline or whether it is the same type of gasoline that was found near the fire. The Laceys point out that Caleb works every day with gasoline and other fuel in his tree-trimming business.

In the weeks after the fire, what was left of the Vanegas family moved to Hempstead. The young boys moved in with their father and now divide their time between him and their mother’s sister, America Chavez, a teacher’s assistant.

The Vanegas clan has attended every one of Caleb Lacey’s court hearings. On one occasion, early on, the two families shouted epithets at one another—outside the courtroom, the Vanegases called Caleb a killer. Now, things have calmed down, and America Chavez keeps the her sister’s children by her side when the two families cross paths at Caleb’s court appearances. “Evil. He is evil,” she says of Caleb.

Richard and Eleanor Lacey continue running their church. They say that they are convinced of Caleb’s innocence, but that only God will dictate what happens next. “This will be the making of him,” the reverend says.