By David Brand and Christina Carrega
Underneath the social media outrage, the breathless reporting and the persistent fear, there are two families, forever linked by a shocking murder on a secluded trail.
When trial begins for Chanel Lewis, the man accused of killing Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano, the families of Vetrano and Lewis will be back together again, forced into close proximity on either side of the small TAP D courtroom.
Vetrano, who was white, was murdered while jogging near her Howard Beach home in August 2016. Six months later, with the murder investigation at an impasse, police arrested Chanel Lewis, a black resident of neighboring East New York. The racial dynamics of the case have further complicated the response in Howard Beach, where hate-fueled attacks have tarnished the neighborhood’s reputation.
In the years since the murder, Vetrano’s family has kept her memory alive through fundraisers, online campaigns and daily conversations with neighbors who watched the young woman grow up.
The family of Chanel Lewis, who was charged with the murder, has also depended on support from their community.
Rev. Kevin McCall, the crisis director for the National Action Network, has been by the side of Chanel Lewis' family since his arrest in February 2017.
As Lewis' family prepared for the opening statements, Lewis’ mother Veta attended the weekly rally at Rev. Al Sharpton's headquarters in Harlem to ask for the community's support in the courtroom, McCall said.
"We are looking forward to Chanel getting vindicated, bringing forth justice and for the truth to be told on both sides,” McCall said. “This has been a long journey for Chanel and his family. Since his arrest, I have visited him nine times. I've seen him read the Bible, study and he even wrote his own Article 78 regarding infractions he received with the corrections officers.”
McCall said supporters would continue to assert Lewis’ innocence.
“We stand by him and he always proclaimed his innocence and we believe he's innocent,” McCall said.
Lewis’ family has faced vicious backlash from many people — including Vetrano’s father Phil Vetrano — who have already convicted him in their minds.
In March, Phil Vetrano criticized Lewis’ mother in a vulgar post on a GoFundMe page the family said it established to “bring Karina’s killer to justice.”
“This Monday we got a little closer to keeping this daemon is his cage forever. The defense doesn’t care that the useless piece of [trash], for no reason other than his mother, yes his mother is to blame for raising the animal, burnt out a shining star,” Phil Vetrano wrote.
Vetrano has posted 193 updates on the GoFundMe page, often condemning Lewis as a “vicious animal” or thanking the friends and neighbors who have supported the family.
On the year anniversary of Vetrano’s murder, Phil Vetrano thanked Howard Beach residents for being more than a community.
“I've been asked many times how has the community been with their support,” Phil Vetrano wrote in the page’s 159th update. “A community is a place where different people live together. Howard Beach is not a community, it is a neighborhood. The difference is a neighborhood is where everyone knows each other, where everyone knows your name and looks out for each other. Up till this tragic day I didn't know the difference but there is a big difference. This is my neighborhood and I thank everyone here and we are indebted to you all.”
As of Friday afternoon, the GoFundMe page had raised $296,652, including two donations made last week.
Vetrano’s family has sought support elsewhere on social media.
Last month, grandmother Gloria Renda Vetrano posted a message on the Facebook group ‘I’m a Christian and Proud of It”
“Trial finally coming up. D.A. says trial should last few days. From his mouth to God’s ears. Amen!” she wrote.
The murder continues to be felt in Howard Beach.
Vetrano’s neighbor Joseph Thompson established the Howard Beach Citizens’ Safety Patrol (HBCOP) to patrol the neighborhood. When contacted by the Eagle, said he promised the Vetrano family that he would not comment to the media but said Vetrano’s “death affected us terribly.”
Thompson vowed to disband HBCOP last year, but he told the Eagle that the organization continues to patrol the neighborhood “as many days as we can” based on the number of volunteers.
The murder affected Howard Beach more than any other event in recent memory, said Patricia Adams, the publisher of The Forum, a local newspaper in Howard Beach.
“I’ve been living in Howard Beach for 45 years and I don’t think a single act has devastated the community more than that,” said Adams, who pleaded guilty to misprision of felony in June.
Perspective on the trial is not monolithic, however, Adams said. She said many neighbors think that Lewis might have been framed or that he did not act alone.
“A lot of people have absolutely tried and convicted him, but a lot of people have a broader perspective on life and they are waiting to see what the prosecution introduces,” she said.
She said the trial could provide “some sense of resolution” — but only if Lewis is convicted. If he is found not guilty, the community “would be further devastated,” she said.
“People are devastated for the victim and for the family of the victim, but they are also frightened,” she said. “It is one of the most heinous and reprehensible crimes that has ever been committed and it’s unthinkable that someone would have to spend the last five minutes of their life suffering the way she did.”
“If he’s found not guilty then people are going to frightened all over again,” she said.