By Patrick Donachie
Mayor Bill de Blasio applauded the vigilance of the tight-knit Howard Beach community in helping to track down the Brooklyn man charged with killing Karina Vetrano, who was strangled during a jog on a remote park trail in August 2016.
“And you saw how the people in the Vetrano case, the people of Howard Beach and the whole city cared so deeply and felt so much for the family – they came forward with every piece of information they had,” he said at a news conference earlier this week.
Police arrested Chanel Lewis, 20, who lives in East New York Saturday. As Lewis awaits trial for the murder of the 30-year-old Howard Beach woman, Vetrano’s father Philip wrote that the suspect will “pay for his crime.” On a GoFundMe fund-raising page he started to raise money for a reward for information on the killer, he said the nearly $300,000 collected could go to assisting charities his daughter would support.
“I want to thank all of you who have supported us so long,” he wrote on the page. “Now we can use all this money that you very generous people have donated.”
Vetrano, 30, was attacked and sexually assaulted Aug. 2 as she jogged through a remote area of Queens known as Spring Creek Park, which straddles the Brooklyn/Queens border, police officials said. The subsequent six-month investigation was exhaustive, according to NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, who said Monday that police took more than 600 DNA samples and filed about 1,700 investigative reports in the course of the case.
Boyce said the investigation turned its focus toward Lewis during the 10 days preceding his arrest. Boyce credited NYPD Lieutenant John Russo, who lives in the Howard Beach area, for recalling a 911 call from the spring of 2016 about a suspicious person in the area.
A “deep dive” into the call led them to Lewis’ name, and they learned he had been issued several summonses in the park area in previous years. On Feb. 2, investigators questioned Lewis at his home on Essex Street in East New York where he lives with his mother.
Boyce said Lewis voluntarily gave a DNA sample, which on Saturday matched evidence found on Vetrano’s body and cell phone. Lewis was taken into custody at the 106th Precinct Saturday night and was arraigned Sunday in a Queens criminal court charged with murder in the second degree, according to the criminal complaint.
The complaint said Lewis punched Vetrano repeatedly and strangled her. If convicted, he faces up to 25 years to life in prison, according to DA Richard Brown.
“At this time he is being charged with intentional murder in the second degree, although the investigation is continuing and a grand jury may consider additional criminal charges when the case is presented to them,” Brown said in a statement.
The New York Post reported, citing unnamed sources, that Lewis confessed to the murder during NYPD questioning and the statements he made led detectives to believe the attack could possibly have been racially motivated, with Lewis saying he did not “like” the people in Howard Beach. The neighborhood, a mostly white, middle-class area, was the site of the 1986 death of a black man who was chased into highway traffic by a group of white teenagers, which increased tensions in the city. The Post also reported Lewis had made several threatening statements when he was enrolled in high school. Boyce said police do not believe Lewis knew Vetrano and it appeared to be a chance encounter. He also said Lewis had offered “incriminating statements” during questioning, but he did not go into detail.
Local elected officials, including state Assemblywoman Stacy Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Beach), state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and city Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) expressed support for the Vetrano family and thanked the NYPD for their efforts.
“We are glad to hear that the Vetrano family may finally get some semblance of justice,” Amato said. “It’s been six long months, but the NYPD worked incredibly hard and should be commended for the caring, relentless and creative pursuit that led them to arrest a suspect.”
The Vetrano family and local elected officials have previously advocated for the use of “familial DNA” testing, which would allow authorities to search DNA databases for potential relatives of a recovered DNA sample.
Amato pledged she would continue her support for the practice at a meeting of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science slated for Friday.
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona