By Patrick Donachie
Police doubled the reward for information leading to Karina Vetrano’s killer to $20,000 as authorities continued to search for clues in the mysterious murder of the Howard Beach jogger. The victim’s family also announced a fund to raise a reward that quickly exceeded more than $100,000.
The news comes after a tumultuous week for the Vetrano family and the larger Howard Beach community, marked by Vetrano’s funeral Saturday at St. Helen’s Catholic Church at 157-10 83rd St. and a packed town hall meeting for worried residents held at the same spot Monday evening.
Karina Vetrano, 30, was last seen leaving her Howard Beach home shortly after 5 p.m. Aug, 2 for an afternoon jog. According to authorities, she entered the remote Spring Creek Park, which is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, onto a path surrounded by high weeds. Vetrano often ran with her father, a retired firefighter, but he did not accompany her that day due to pain in his back. According to police, she texted a friend on her run.
Police responded to calls of her missing at about 7 p.m., and her body was found in the park’s marshland area later that evening. Police said she was sexually assaulted and strangled to death.
Vetrano was a graduate of St. John’s University and worked as a caterer at the nearby Vetro Restaurant in Howard Beach. She was also a speech pathologist.
At the town hall meeting, investigators hesitated to go into specifics about the investigation, but did say they had retrieved video recordings from private individuals or businesses and interviewed hundreds of people. Incoming Chief of Department Carlos Gomez and Deputy Inspector Michael Kemper were on hand and praised the community for its cooperation.
“I’ve never seen the level of communication between police and community that I’ve seen in the past week and I’m being sincere,” Kemper said. “The best in the world are on this case.”
Kemper said there were currently no persons of interest but evidence was recovered at the scene and the authorities were questioning sex offenders. He also said there was no reason to believe there was a connection with the Sunday murder of a New York jogger in Massachusetts, although he said the two police departments were “comparing notes.”
Hundreds of community members packed the pews and lined the walls of the church during the town hall meeting, with the questions and answers amplified through loudspeakers outside of the church for the overflow crowd who could not enter because of the lack of space.
Many of the questions revolved around safety issues in “the weeds,” or the ‘Baja’, as it is called by some community members, which hide the path from view. During the meeting, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz announced that she had allocated funding for NYPD cameras to be set up on the streets outside the park.
“I wish it had been there previously, but it’s there now,” she said. “You enter there and exit there, you’re going to be filmed.”
An audience member questioned if cameras on the street would be able to see the path through weeds that stretch higher than 10 feet, and a friend of the Vetrano family said proper funding was needed to protect Howard Beach, which she called an “urban community with a national park.”
“The biggest thing that worries me is that we need a plan in place to secure the park like every other national park is secured. This is not a conversation that has come up because of the murder of Karina,” she said, referring to a history of back and forth with federal agencies.
Though the exterior of the park is city property, the interior of Spring Creek Park, along with the entirety of the Gateway National Recreation Area, is owned by the federal government and managed by the National Park Service. The 26,607-acre area extends from Queens through Brooklyn to Staten Island and Monmouth County in New Jersey.
In addition to the cameras, Capt. Peter Culver of the United States Park Police said the federal government had allocated resources in the short term for additional park patrols during weekdays, and 106th Precinct Capt. James Fey said additional resources had been allocated for the NYPD to offer patrols of the grounds during weekends. The federal park patrols the area during weekdays only, but both officials pledged their agencies would collaborate to ensure patrols each day.
One community member who identified himself as Joe suggested closing the park, with other individuals in the audience saying that the weeds be burned or mowed.
“Those weeds are not a park,” he said. “The petition we need to be signing as a neighborhood is to close that park, lock it up and don’t let anybody in there whatsoever.”
Father Francis Colamaria, who also said the funeral mass for Vetrano in the same church a two days before the meeting, said he disagreed with that assertion.
“It is a park. It was a park that Karina loved. Her parents told me that,” he said. “We need to make it safe.”
U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), who represents Howard Beach in Congress, wrote Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell Monday, requesting federal aid in properly securing Spring Creek Park along with all of Gateway, including funds to “maintain the parkland in a manner that controls growth of the shrubbery and weeds, which is a potential shelter for criminal conduct.”
Police asked anyone with information about the case to contact NYPD Crime Stoppers at 1 (800) 577-TIPS.
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona