Jogger Karina Vetrano was found brutally murdered on Aug. 2, 2016, in her close-knit Howard Beach community. A year later, many residents say they still won’t set foot in Spring Creek Park, where the 30-year-old’s body was found.
The murder, in a neighborhood where violent crimes are rare, left the community reeling for nearly six months until police nabbed a suspect, 20-year-old Chanel Lewis of East New York, which borders Howard Beach in Queens.
Lewis is accused of strangling and sexually abusing Vetrano, a graduate of St. John’s University who worked part-time as a cocktail waitress at an Italian restaurant and lounge in Howard Beach, where she also lived with her parents.
The suspect is being held at the North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island, which houses high-profile inmates or prisoners who need medical care, while awaiting a pretrial hearing on Sept. 7.
He allegedly confessed to killing Vetrano in February, but pleaded not guilty in court in April. Whether or not his confession was voluntary will be the topic of a pretrial hearing, Queens State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak said during another hearing on July 13.
His DNA, which Lewis gave voluntarily, matched samples taken from under Vetrano’s nails, on her neck and on her phone, according to authorities.
Even with the arrest, residents of the neighborhood have been noticeably more alert, said Capt. Brian J. Bohannon Jr., the commanding officer of the 106th Precinct, which covers Howard Beach, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park.
“People do call the police when they do see something down there. We have had calls of suspicious persons in the neighborhood,” said Bohannon, who noted that Howard Beach is a “very pro-police community.” Residents have called in when they don’t recognize someone from their block or neighborhood, he added.
“I haven’t seen any … ‘sky falling down’ sentiment like people assumed would happen,” he added. “I feel they’re very appreciative of the work that the police have done, especially closing this case and bringing her killer to justice.”
The park where Vetrano’s body was found, Spring Creek Park — a sprawling, federally protected green space at the southern end of the Howard Beach peninsula locals call “The Weeds” — is overgrown with thick common reeds that reached up to more than 5 feet high on a recent afternoon and lined both sides of the dirt walking paths inside.
The wildness of the park deterred most people from it even before the murder, but after, the more adventurous also stopped going in, some residents said.
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Maxomiliano Lopez Gomez said he used to kayak, fish and ride his motorcycle in Spring Creek Park, but he didn’t return after the NYPD and National Park Service police swarmed it following Vetrano’s death.
While Spring Creek Park is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, owned and operated by the National Park Service, the NYPD is responsible for the surrounding area. City police are not currently targeting the area for more patrols, Bohannon said.
The exterior of the park is patrolled daily by a U.S. Parks police officer in a marked vehicle and the interior is patrolled several times a week, said Sgt. David Somma of the U.S. Parks police, though he wouldn’t provide the exact number of patrols inside The Weeds.
Immediately after Vetrano’s body was found, the weeds in the park were trimmed down so people could finally see into it, and police in cars, on horses and on foot patrolled the area for months. But as soon as Lewis was arrested in February, the police disappeared and the weeds grew back in full force, residents said.
“You’re basically in a forest and you never know what’s going to come out of there,” Lopez Gomez said. “I’m not really worried about people in there, but more the animals, like raccoons. They could be rabid. You see people go in there, mostly people who enjoy the wildlife. But I don’t go in there anymore.”
James Debari, 46, father of two young children and resident of Howard Beach for 11 years, said he used to go into the park “out of curiosity,” but hasn’t been back since the murder.
“I would never take my kids in there,” he said. “I’m more worried about the ticks than anything else. A lot of people don’t go in there. Nobody really knows why [Vetrano] was in there.”
Some community advocates have urged residents to stay out of the park, while others hoped the tragedy would push the National Park Service to rejuvenate the space into a safe place for visitors by removing weeds and adding cameras and lighting, Somma said.
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“If you’re going to be walking at night, make sure you go with a buddy,” said Joann Ariola, president of the Howard Beach-Lindenwood Civic Association. “We also urge people not to go to Spring Creek Park. Although it’s patrolled, it’s not as patrolled as we would like it.”
On Feb. 2, just before Lewis’ arrest on Feb. 5, the National Park Service and the state Department of Environmental Conservation approached Queens Community Board 10 – which covers Howard Beach, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park – with an update to its resiliency plan for the park that was proposed in 2015, after superstorm Sandy.
The plan originally focused on reducing storm damage and flooding around Spring Creek Park, but now features a “crime prevention” component, including permanently ripping out the weeds there, replacing them with shorter native plants and installing benches, according to Gateway.
“We wouldn’t want anything to grow high like [the weeds],” explained Gateway spokeswoman Daphne Yun. “It maximizes safety and security through sight lines and access points.”
I would never take my kids in [The Weeds].Howard Beach resident James Debari
… A lot of people don’t go in there.
Construction on the nearly $70 million, FEMA-funded project is expected to start in the summer of 2019 and wrap up by the summer of 2021, according to the DEC.
But infrastructure in the park currently doesn’t support cameras and lighting, Somma said.
Gateway has hired a security expert to figure out whether adding cameras and lighting would be possible, according to Yun.
“Lighting is part of the conversation, but there might not be any lighting so people can know when it’s open and when it’s closed,” Yun said, noting that the park is only open from dawn to dusk. There’s a small sign listing park rules and hours at the intersection of 83rd Street and 161st Avenue.
The community’s concerns over safety in the park came to a head after Vetrano’s death. As the NYPD investigated, the only footage obtained of her running outside the park was captured from a CCTV camera attached to a house on 83rd Street near 164th Avenue.
“If there’s a really safe area, you don’t want the resources to be used, but then something happens, and you wished they were there,” Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said.
The NYPD installed eight cameras along the edge of Spring Creek Park on Aug. 24, 2016, about three weeks after Vetrano was killed. The cameras were funded by Katz’s office as part of a Queens-wide camera installation project costing $1.2 million.
“There always should have been some sort of cameras there,” Katz said. “[Now] if you enter or leave the park, you’ll be filmed.”
Howard Beach is mostly residential with a beachside, suburban feel and a population of roughly 30,000 people, 82.4 percent of whom are white non-Hispanic, and the majority of whom are homeowners, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, from 2015. Only about 11 percent of residents rented during 2015, the data shows.
The neighborhood is bound by water on three sides and borders Ozone Park and South Ozone Park to the north and East New York to the west.
John Spinelli, 47, moved to Howard Beach in 2000. The former engineer, who is no longer working and is on disability, said he moved to the area for some peace and quiet and for the Italian community.
“I lived in South Ozone Park, but I moved here because the neighborhood was getting bad — noisy,” Spinelli said. “It’s quiet here. No one plays the music really loud. It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s predominantly Italian. That’s why my mom wanted to live here.”
With a median household income of more than $85,000, Howard Beach is easily the wealthiest of the communities surrounding it. By comparison, the median income of neighboring Ozone Park is $62,057 and in East New York it’s $35,698, census data shows.
Howard Beach also has the lowest major crime numbers out of those neighborhoods.
Complaints about noise and a woman selling ices on the roadside made up the majority of residents’ grievances during a July 12 session of a community meeting, held monthly at the 106th Precinct.
“It’s a community where violent crime is not regular,” said Betty Braton, chairperson of Community Board 10 and a resident of Howard Beach for more than 60 years.
“A murder is far from common. That’s what made it a horrendous thing to the community. It certainly disturbed the community greatly, made people very mindful that there is danger in this world you live in.”
Howard Beach hasn’t seen any murders or rapes in 2017, as of July 23, though there were eight robberies and nine felony assaults. Precinct-wide, there were three murders, four rapes, 109 robberies and 126 felony assaults for that time period.
By comparison, on the other side of the Belt Parkway in the 75th Precinct, which covers East New York and Cypress Hills, there were five murders, 32 rapes, 352 robberies and 478 felony assaults reported for that period.
Single-family houses and manicured lawns make up most of the tight-knit Howard Beach community, with Italian eateries, cafes and chain stores concentrated along Cross Bay Boulevard, the neighborhood’s commercial strip, including Vetro Restaurant and Lounge, where Vetrano worked as a cocktail waitress.
Residents have been more wary since the murder and it’s made them band together, Bohannon said.
“It increased awareness,” he said. “For the family, that grief is never going to go away. As far as the community in general, the businesses doors aren’t shuttered and no one is sleeping behind closed doors. I think we have rebounded pretty well.”
Residents of Howard Beach will hold a vigil for Karina Vetrano on Wednesday, Aug. 2, the one-year anniversary of her death. They will meet at 165th Avenue and 85th Street at 7 p.m. and walk to St. Helen’s Church on 83rd Street. Borough President Melinda Katz and the 106th Precinct’s Commanding Officer Brian J. Bohannon Jr. will be among those in attendance.
Reported by: Heather Holland, Nicole Brown, Lauren Cook, Alison Fox, Alex Bazeley & Sarina Trangle | Copy editor: Martha Guevara | Designer: Matthew Cassella | Interactive editor: Polly Higgins |