The mother of slain Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano clutched a crucifix and sobbed Monday in a Queens courtroom as she watched the videotaped confessions of the man authorities said strangled her daughter in a Howard Beach park in 2016.
The hearing before Queens State Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak was scheduled to — among other things — determine if NYPD investigators properly questioned the defendant, Brooklyn resident Chanel Lewis, 21, after his February arrest in connection with the crime.
Clasping the crucifix tightly and leaning forward in her seat, Catherine Vetrano appeared composed for the most part as Lewis, who is being held without bail, recounted in video interviews with detectives how he attacked, beat and strangled the young jogger on the night of Aug. 2, 2016 as she ran in Spring Creek Park. The crucifix was the same one placed on Karina Vetrano’s casket for her funeral.
As Lewis recounted for detectives how he grabbed an apparently dead Karina Vetrano by her arms to drag her into the park weeds off the jogging trail, Catherine Vetrano let out a sob and brought her hands to her face. Her husband, Philip Vetrano placed an arm around his wife to console her.
“I lost it,” Lewis told NYPD detective Barry Brown during one of three taped interviews played in court about why he suddenly lashed out and attacked Karina Vetrano, 30, as she jogged past him. Lewis told cops he was angry the day of the attack because his family had some men visiting the house and making a lot of noise.
Lewis, who faces murder and other charges, said Karina Vetrano fought back, scratching him on the right side of his face as he pummeled her and choked her. At one point, Lewis said on a separate video made the same day before prosecutors from the Queens District Attorney’s Office, he struck her for about five minutes and had his hands for an indeterminate time around the jogger’s neck as she lay in a muddy puddle on the trail. Despite claims by police that Karina Vetrano was sexually assaulted, Lewis has denied it.
In earlier testimony Lt. John Russo, who lives in Howard Beach, described how on Memorial Day 2016, he became suspicious when he spotted Lewis in the neighborhood wearing a hoodie and sweatpants on a hot day. Lewis seemed to be casing the houses in the area, Russo said.
The next day, the lieutenant said, a 911 call from a Howard Beach homeowner described a similarly dressed man going in and out of backyards in the area and sitting on the street with a crowbar. Russo said he had the local cops respond. They questioned Lewis, Russo said, and let him go, but not before taking down his name and address.
Russo later had a hunch and eventually asked detectives to dig out Lewis’s name in January and go to his home to question him. Det. Michael Greenideg testified that on Feb. 4 he visited Lewis at his home. In the presence of his mother, Lewis denied having anything to do with the attack on Karina Vetrano but consented to give a DNA sample. His DNA matched genetic evidence found on Karina Vetrano’s body. Det. Brown took Lewis into custody the next day.
As he watched the videos, Philip Vetrano, Karina Vetrano’s father, said later, he had “anger, a lot of anger.”
“We knew the particulars, but hearing it and seeing it . . . it was extremely difficult,” he said of the videos. “It was bad. It was bad.”
Defense attorney Robert Moeller said outside court he would file legal briefs on the issues in the case and expected Lasak would decide about the admissibility of the confessions and evidence in January.
Philip Vetrano said the hearing made him feel confident about the prosecution’s case.
“It only makes me more positive that they [defense] don’t have snowball’s chance in hell,” he said.