Murder of Karina Vetrano
Karina Anne Vetrano
July 12, 1986
|Died||August 2, 2016 (aged 30)|
|Cause of death||Strangulation|
|Height||4 ft 11 in (1.50 m)|
|Parent(s)||Phillip Vetrano (father) |
Cathie Vetrano (mother)
|Conviction(s)||1 count of first-degree murder |
2 counts of second-degree murder
1 count of sexual abuse
(convicted April 1, 2019)
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole|
|Date||August 2, 2016|
|February 4, 2017|
Karina Anne Vetrano (July 12, 1986 – August 2, 2016) was a 30-year-old American woman who was attacked, sexually assaulted, and murdered while running in Spring Creek Park in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York City. The case attracted national media attention, partially due to how it went unsolved for nearly six months. A suspect, Chanel Lewis, was arrested and charged with her murder in February 2017 after being linked by DNA evidence. Lewis' trial began on November 5, 2018, and ended in mistrial on November 21, 2018. A retrial, which was originally scheduled for January 22, 2019, by prosecutors, took place in March 2019. On April 1, 2019, Lewis was found guilty on three counts of murder and one count of sexual abuse; he was sentenced to life in prison without parole on April 23, 2019.
Karina Anne Vetrano was born July 12, 1986, in New York to Phillip and Cathie Vetrano. She had two siblings; a brother and a sister. Her father, a New York City Fire Department retiree, was one of the first responders at Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks. She attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and graduated from St. John's University with a master's degree in speech pathology. An aspiring writer, she appeared in a 2013 short film inspired by her writings and directed by her screenwriter friend Petros Georgiadis. She lived in the same Queens neighborhood as her parents and worked with children with autism in Manhattan as a speech pathologist.
On August 2, 2016, in the late afternoon, Vetrano went for a run in Spring Creek Park, less than a block away from her home. She ran alone, despite the expressed concerns of her father, her usual running partner, who was suffering from a back injury. She was last seen alive after 5 p.m, just before she entered the park.
After she failed to return repeated calls and texts, Vetrano's father notified a neighbor, an NYPD police chief, who launched a search. Around 11 p.m. her father found her body face-down about 15 feet off the trail. Partially naked, she was covered with scratches and bruises. There was also evidence that she was sexually assaulted. An autopsy the next day confirmed that Vetrano had died of strangulation, and her death was ruled a homicide. Detectives said it appeared that Vetrano had been struck in the back of the head with a rock. Vetrano then put up a "ferocious fight" against her attacker, biting him so hard her teeth cracked. Her hands were found clutching grass from when she was dragged off the trail. She had been strangled so tightly a hand-print was found on her neck. The DNA of her attacker was also found under her fingernails, on her back, and on her phone, which was found thrown in the weeds several feet away.
Police officials announced a $10,000 reward for information leading up to the arrest of her killer.
Despite the recovery of DNA at the crime scene, it initially failed to produce any leads, even after being run through local and national databases. Over 600 DNA samples were examined over the course of the investigation, with none coming up a positive match. Additionally, the NYPD checked over 1,700 investigative reports and followed over 250 leads.
Chanel Lewis was arrested six months later, after authorities matched his DNA to that which had been found on the victim.
Investigation and media coverage
On August 7, less than a week after Vetrano's murder, another New York City resident, 27-year-old Vanessa Marcotte, was found slain on a rural stretch of road in Princeton, Massachusetts. Marcotte was also killed during a run, and much of the news reporting on the crime compared it to Vetrano's murder. However, DNA and other evidence proved the murders to have been committed by different men. Vetrano and Marcotte's deaths has led to narratives and discussions about the safety of women who exercise alone.
On August 31, police released a sketch of a "person of interest", a man who had been seen in near Spring Creek around the time Vetrano was killed. A utility worker had seen the man coming out of the weeds and running on a path by Belt Parkway. On September 12, the TV show Crime Watch Daily released a home surveillance video of Vetrano running near Spring Creek Park, minutes before she was killed. It is the last known footage of her alive.
In December 2016, the FBI and the NYPD developed and shared a suspect profile of who may have killed Vetrano.
A GoFundMe page created by Vetrano's family, originally meant as a $250,000 reward fund for anyone with information about the killer, reached over $290,000, with the extra money to be donated to charity. Following the murder, the family had become outspoken proponents for familial DNA testing, pushing lawmakers to pass laws to authorize use of the practice. Despite the homicide being solved without it, they continue to advocate its benefits.
On February 4, 2017, the police announced that a suspect in the strangulation death of Karina Vetrano had been taken into questioning, later adding that Chanel R. Lewis, a 20-year-old Brooklyn resident, was placed under arrest and charged with one count of second-degree murder.
Lewis, who was unemployed, lived with his mother, two sisters and their children in a low-income housing project in East New York, less than 3 miles (4.8 km) away from the park where Vetrano was found dead. As well, Lewis gave statements to police, including describing a peculiar puddle of muddy water that detectives had seen near Vetrano's body. Although he had no criminal record, he reportedly had a "hatred for women" and once told a teacher's aide he wanted to "stab all the girls" at his school several years earlier. He had been taken into protective custody numerous times and was described as a loner and mentally unstable. A neighbor who lived near the family had told reporters that he "terrorized" people in the neighborhood.
Lewis also had several run-ins with police in the years before the murder, including three summons in 2013: two for violating rules in Spring Creek Park and one for urinating in public. An additional incident occurred in May 2016 when a 9-1-1 caller reported a suspicious male with a crowbar in the backyards of several homes. An NYPD lieutenant who lived in Howard Beach also remembered him lurking around in the area looking into cars and traced him from when Lewis's name and address had been taken by police during a stop-and-frisk report.
According to investigators, on August 2, Lewis had left his home after arguing with his family and walked over to the park, where he came across, and then attacked, Vetrano. While it is believed to have been a completely random encounter, it is not definitely known if Lewis had ever seen Vetrano before, or premeditated the attack on her.
His mother recalled that upon returning home that night, he was looking "disheveled" with his clothes torn. Lewis claimed he had been mugged by a group of men, although there was no evidence of such an attack, and a police report was never filed. The next day, August 3, Lewis's father, a former school principal, took him to a local emergency room for treatment of scratches and cuts on Lewis's upper body. Hospital records confirmed that Lewis was treated by doctors the day after the murder, and that he had also suffered a hand injury. Lewis's family continued to deny his involvement in the homicide; his father claimed he had not heard of or read about Vetrano's death until after his son was arrested for it.
The first Karina Vetrano murder trial began on November 5, 2018. Lewis had pleaded not guilty to murder and sex abuse charges, and faced a sentence of either 25 years or life in prison.
On November 7, 2018, Phil Vetrano testified in court on how he created a search party to find his daughter's body.
On November 9, 2018, jurors watched a video tape of Lewis' confession to the murder. The tape had been previously played at a 2017 pretrial hearing in Queens Supreme Court.
On November 14, 2018, forensic biologist Linda Razzano testified that Lewis' DNA had a one in 6 trillion chance of someone else sharing a genetic profile. Dr. Margaret Prial, who performed Karina Vetrano's autopsy, described Vetrano's injuries, including a compressed carotid artery in her neck.
On November 15, 2018, Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal asked Judge Michael Aloise to dismiss nine of the counts against Chanel Lewis. Four counts remained in the indictment: one of first-degree murder, two of second-degree murder, and one of first-degree sexual abuse.
The first trial ended with a hung jury due to defensive arguments as well as claims that the DNA evidence was contaminated.
On November 21, 2018, a judge declared a mistrial, and tentatively scheduled a retrial for January 22, 2019; the retrial was later rescheduled for March 2019.
In the retrial, Chanel Lewis was found guilty on two counts of second-degree murder, one count of first-degree murder, and one count of sexual abuse on April 1, 2019, after five hours of deliberation. The sentencing hearing was initially scheduled for April 17, with expectations of a sentence to the maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. A few days before April 17, however, Lewis's attorneys requested and received a delay, so they could introduce allegations of misconduct among several members of the jury which convicted him. On April 23, 2019, Lewis was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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