Prosecutors Play 911 Call of ‘Suspicious Male’ with ‘Hood Up’ That Led to Vetrano Murder Arrest 8 Months Later

NYPD Lt. John Russo (center) testifies in Queens Criminal Court as Judge Michael Aloise (right) looks on. Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal (left) is leading the prosecution. //  Eagle  drawing by Alba Acevedo     By David Brand   

NYPD Lt. John Russo (center) testifies in Queens Criminal Court as Judge Michael Aloise (right) looks on. Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal (left) is leading the prosecution. // Eagle drawing by Alba Acevedo

 By David Brand 

The high-ranking NYPD officer whose 911 call about a “suspicious male” with a “hood up” in Howard Beach in May 2016 led to an arrest eight months later took the stand in Queens Supreme Court Thursday. For the first time, prosecutors played that emergency call in court.

John Russo, the NYPD lieutenant commander of detectives overseeing all active investigations in the city, called 911 on Memorial Day 2016 to report that a “dark-skinned” “single male” was walking through a “100 percent residential” portion of Howard Beach “looking at houses.”

Russo described the suspect — later identified as Chanel Lewis — wearing a long-sleeved shirt and hood in warm weather that ignited his suspicions.

“To see a person dressed with long sleeves and hood up in warm weather seemed out place,” Russo, a white Howard Beach resident, said during testimony. “After several minutes of watching, I believed he was about to commit or had previously committed a burglary so I called 911 and reported a suspicious a male.”

In his call, Russo’s muffled voice described a vague suspicion about Lewis’ activity.

“Just walking up and down the block with a hood up,” Russo told the dispatcher.

The dispatcher asked if there were weapons present or whether anyone was injured. “No,” Russo replied.

Russo’s initial 911 call has been widely criticized as racial profiling and a familiar example of white people calling the police to report black people who are minding their own business.

When asked by the Eagle what he thinks when people say he racially profiled Lewis, Russo responded, “No comment.”

When asked by the Eagle if he regularly calls 911 to report people he does not recognize in Howard Beach, Russo again said, “No comment.”

During his testimony, Russo said he lost track of Lewis after he followed him for “45 minutes to an hour.” He did not see if any officers stopped Lewis.

The next day, Russo said he received an alert about a 911 call reporting a suspicious man “near a crowbar” in Howard Beach. Russo said he suspected the “suspicious man” was Lewis, the same person he had seen the day before.

Russo said he drove to the area and again saw Lewis “seven to eight blocks” from where he saw him the previous day. This time he said he stayed in his private vehicle and watched as officers from the 106th Precinct stopped, questioned and frisked Lewis. Officers did not arrest Lewis, but they did take down Lewis’ name and date of birth.

Eight months later, on Jan. 31, 2017, Russo said he recalled that encounter and “asked supervisors in the 106 Precinct to locate the officer who had been involved in a stop-and-question on May 31, 2016.” He said he instructed the officers to visit Lewis’ home in East New York, question him and obtain a DNA sample.

Neither the prosecution nor defense asked Russo what made him recall Lewis walking through the neighborhood eight months earlier.

When detectives did visit Lewis on Feb. 2, Lewis did voluntarily give a DNA sample via cheek swab. Investigators said his DNA matched the suspect’s DNA found on Vetrano’s phone, neck and finger nails.

During cross examination by defense attorney Robert Moeller, Russo said he saw Lewis “walking fast, walking slow” and pacing the day he followed him.

Despite the 911 call reporting a suspicious male “near a crowbar” the second day, no crow bar was ever recovered, Russo said.

As he has done each day of the trial, Judge Michael Aloise continued standing for the entire duration of proceedings. Today, Aloise wore a purple tie, which Phil Vetrano told the Eagle “was [Karina’s] color.