“Don’t worry daddy, I will be OK,” Karina Vetrano told her father as she departed for a jog through Spring Creek Park near their home in Howard Beach the evening of Aug. 2, 2016.
Those were the last words he ever heard from his 30-year-old “baby,” her father Philip Vetrano testified Wednesday in a hushed Queens courtroom. The next time he saw Karina, her lifeless, battered, bloody and violated body lay among the weeds in the park.
Philip Vetrano, his voice quivering and often on the verge of breaking into tears, recounted how, in the company of friends and police officers, he had charged through the weeds and brush to find his dead daughter that August night.
“That was where Karina was. That is where I found her,” Vetrano said in a low voice as he was shown photos of the area where his daughter’s body was found.
Vetrano, 62, was testifying in the second day of the trial of Chanel Lewis, 22, the Brooklyn man charged with sexually assaulting and murdering Karina Vetrano. Prosecutors contend that Lewis attacked Karina in a chance encounter as she jogged through the park because he had a bad day at home and snapped in a rage. Police said that DNA evidence found on Vetrano’s body and her cellphone matched that of Lewis. Prosecutors also said Lewis gave detailed confessions.
Lewis is being represented by Legal Aid Society attorneys who are expected to try and show that the defendant’s statements were either coerced or suggested by police and that DNA evidence is not infallible.
Often during Philip Vetrano’s testimony, his wife Catherine, their oldest daughter Tana and other relatives sobbed. During the testimony Lewis was mostly hunched over the defense table, his head down and sometimes held in his hand.
The emotional breaking point for Philip Vetrano came when prosecutor Brad Leventhal asked him to look at graphic crime scene photos of his dead daughter. Vetrano slowly rose from his chair in the witness box and, as he turned to look at the photos, appeared to become unsteady and put his hand to his face.
“I never saw this!” Vetrano said tearfully about the images taken by a police crime scene photographer.
In the two years since his daughter’s death, Philip Vetrano often contained his emotions as he recounted the night she was killed. But Wednesday his voice often quaked as he testified not only about finding her body, but also about the way he took Karina for a final slice of pizza after driving her home from the train station before she went for a jog.
Vetrano testified that he had misgivings about his daughter jogging alone in the park's tall weeds despite her assurances that she would be OK. But when Karina didn’t return home shortly after 6 p.m., Vetrano said a feeling of unease came over him. A few minutes later, Vetrano said, he barraged his daughter’s cellphone with calls, asking where she was. By about 6:30 p.m.Vetrano said he went to find Karina in the park. But after spending fruitless time as the twilight grew, Vetrano said he called an old neighborhood friend, NYPD Chief John Cassidy, who told him to sit tight and wait by the park for cops.
With Karina still missing, more police arrived with canine units and a command post was set up, Vetrano said. Eventually, with another friend, Phil Guarnieri, Vetrano said he went into the park near a spot where police had found his daughter’s cellphone. As Vetrano walked back down a trail from where the phone was located, he said he noticed a disturbance in the vegetation and entered an area near some trees to find Karina’s body.
“I made a sound l never made before or since,” recalled Vetrano about the way he wailed.
With the shock, Vetrano said he spit out a Juan Lopez cigar he had been smoking. Cops later found it near Karina’s body.
Pulled away from his daughter’s body after he had tried to lift her, Vetrano went home to break the news to his wife, Catherine, who was sitting on the stoop of their home.
“I didn’t have to say anything, she knew. I put my arm around her,” Vetrano said.
The trial resumes Thursday.