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Mike Descalso/AP
Caleb Lacey of Lawrence, N.Y., sits
in the back seat of a Nassau County
Police vehicle in Mineola.

“Hero Complex” to Blame in NY Arson Fire

March 29, 2009 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
A desire for fame and recognition could have motivated a teenage firefighter who is suspected of burning down a neighboring house. This “hero complex” occasionally afflicts those in service positions.

Volunteer Firefighter Sets Blaze in Hopes of Being a Hero

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On March 22, Caleb Lacey, 19, was arrested for setting fire to a neighbor’s apartment building in North Lawrence, N.Y. Lacey, a volunteer firefighter, is said to have poured gasoline on the primary exit—the stairwell—then waited at the fire station for the alert.

According to police, arson experts have labeled this fire “a vanity or hero-type fire.” In these situations, police explained to Newsday, “The person setting the fire wants to be a hero in saving lives or in putting out the fire.”

If as police say, Lacey’s mission was to be a hero, he failed. The fire killed Morena Vanegas, her daughters Susanna and Andrea, and her son, Saul Preza, 19. Vanegas’ husband Edit and her two other children survived.

While the term “hero complex” cannot be found in the DSM-IV—the bible of psychological disorders—it is familiar to those involved in arson investigations.

A federal study published in 2003 analyzed the history of 75 firefighters who were also arsonists and found that the impulse came from a desire for excitement. The study found that the majority of firefighters had worked for about three years and were more often volunteers and not paid employees.

Criminologist Michael Rustigan told The New York Times that in such cases the individuals are driven by their egos and a lack of accomplishment: “They’ve fallen down, and they now want to be heroes.” He theorized, “They are a manifestation of our culture’s obsession with fame.”

While the Times reported that the “hero complex” is rare among police officers. In September 2004, Joseph Rodriguez, a former transit officer, was arrested for setting off a bomb in Time Square. According to the Times, the “hero complex” is more common among firefighters, nurses and security guards. 

Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a professor of psychology at UCLA, told the AP, “In all those cases it seems to be a kind of distorted impulse for self-aggrandizement and a demonstration of one’s own virtues, courage and heroism.”

According to Firehouse.com, there have been a number of other fires on Long Island where the motive was “personal gain.” Three years ago, a volunteer firefighter set fire to a flower shop in Williston Park and came back to help put it out.

That same year, another volunteer was imprisoned for setting fire to his girlfriend’s house to “distract her from an argument … about his drinking.”

While “hero syndrome” is not an actual disease, organizations can work to avoid it. Dr. Allen Sapp, a professor emeritus at the University of Central Missouri, created a test to help hospital staff, fire departments and other organizations screen potential candidates, Firehouse.com reported.

Sapp explained that the tool helps measure an individual’s self-esteem and other traits. He cautioned, “We don’t want to give the impression that there is a magic formula and local authorities aren’t using it. It’s not a magic pill.”

Background: Caleb Lacey’s arrest

Morena Vanegas’ sister Yolanda Lopez said Lacey’s father, Rev. Richard Lacey, offered his church’s support, a gesture for which she was grateful. However, she noted that the priest’s son, though he attended the funeral, never gave his condolences.

According to a police statement Lacey was suspended from the Lawrence Cedarhurst Fire Department just after the fire. If he is found guilty he could serve 25 years to life in prison.

Jose Borjas, a brother of Saul Preza, said Lacey “felt threatened by Saul. That’s why he did it. That’s the only reason.” According to Newsday, the victims’ family holds that Lacey was jealous of Saul Preza, because Lacey’s girlfriend liked Preza.

Det. Lt. Kevin Smith said, “We gave a motive and the motive that we gave is the vanity theory. We’re not going to reveal anything more about the case at this time.”
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