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 protested his innocence Friday 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 Feb. 19, 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 19-year-old son, Saul Presa. Morena Vanegas' 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 coin-operated laundry. 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.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Canty said during the trial that after Lacey joined the fire department in October 2008, he became frustrated after answering 90 emergency calls, none of which were active fires. He also noted that in Lacey's brief tenure with the department, he had never responded to any calls between midnight and 7 a.m., until the morning of the fatal blaze.