By David Brand and Christina Carrega
Two years after Karina Vetrano’s gruesome death, signs offering a reward for information leading to a suspect still line the streets of Howard Beach and Ozone Park.
One sign on an electrical pole along Conduit Boulevard offers $200,000, a hint at the magnitude of Vetrano’s murder, a seemingly random killing that rocked New York City.
With jury selection set to begin Monday in front of Justice Michael Aloise, questions about the arrest and initial police interview of Chanel Lewis — the man accused of the murder — persist.
On Aug. 2, 2016, 30-year-old Vetrano went jogging alone on a secluded trail in Spring Creek Park near her Howard Beach home. When she did not return home or respond to calls and texts for several hours, Vetrano’s father Philip called a neighbor for assistance.
That neighbor was an NYPD commander who called 911. Philip, a retired firefighter, led a police search along his daughter’s usual running route — a route he typically took with her, but sat out that day because of a recent back injury.
A dozen feet into the trail, Philip discovered his daughter’s dead body scratched, bruised and partially naked. NYPD officials said she appeared to have been hit in the head, raped and strangled.
Six months after the killing, NYPD Lt. John Russo, also a Howard Beach resident, remembered encountering a young black man walking through the neighborhood in May 2016.
That young black man who received a summons was Lewis.
With the investigation stalled, Russo continued to investigate Lewis and learned that he had a possible history of emotional disturbances and previously told emergency medical professionals he wanted to “hurt girls.”
Lewis was taken in for questioning and investigators conducted a DNA swab. They said Lewis’s DNA matched the evidence collected under Vetrano’s fingernails, on her phone and in the brush near her body. Lewis, then 20, was arrested on Feb. 5, 2017.
While in police custody, Lewis confessed to committing the crime, but defense attorneys argued that the confession was coerced.
About eight months after Vetrano’s death, a Queens grand jury indicted Lewis with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and sexual abuse charges. Lewis’s attorneys Robert Moeller, Julia Burke and Jenny Cheung from the Legal Aid Society entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in front of former Justice Gregory Lasak.
The defense attorneys said Lewis was unjustly identified by a local police officer in a case of racial profiling.
“Walking on a public street in Howard Beach, albeit very slowly and looking at homes, is not criminal, nor does this violate any sections of the penal law,” wrote Lewis’ attorneys in a December filing reported by The New York Times. “Nor is it a crime to pace back and forth in front of a parking lot.”
Lewis’s mother told The Daily News that her son aspired to be a nurse and wouldn’t be in a marsh-like area where Vetrano was found because he’s “afraid of bugs.”
Aloise took over the case when Lasak resigned from the court last month.
A GoFundMe page established by Howard Beach residents and Vetrano’s parents in Vetrano’s memory has raised more than $296,000 toward a $400,000 goal. The most recent donation was made on Oct. 8.
“Every dollar from you will help to bring her family and our community one step closer to the only thing that can help now and that is an arrest and conviction,” the fundraisers wrote on the page.