Every day in the year since his daughter was killed, Philip Vetrano goes to the spot in Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach where Karina was found, beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted.
The secluded area, surrounded by tall grass and marked by towering sunflower plants, is now a small, unofficial memorial garden. Vetrano visits it twice a day to feed birds and stray cats, as well as to spend quiet moments thinking about what he and his wife, Catherine, lost.
“There are no better days, there aren’t any worse days, they are all the same,” Vetrano said last week.
It was late in the evening on Aug. 2, 2016, that Karina’s body was discovered after she disappeared following what was supposed to be a short training run through the park near her house.
Philip Vetrano, who found his daughter’s body as he combed the park with police that August night, said he remembered instinctively going to the spot in the grass where his daughter’s body lay.
“She needed me to find her. . . . She led me to her, she needed her daddy to find her, no question about it,” Vetrano said when he was asked what let him to that spot.
After he found his daughter, Vetrano said his mind went blank as police helicopters swarmed overhead and law enforcement officers converged on the scene. “I kept thinking ‘I have to take her home,’ ” he recalled.
Today, the site of her death is marked by a memorial Vetrano himself fashioned from materials gathered in the park: a flat blue stone with Karina’s name, a butterfly sculpture and some small seats. Friends and family visit the memorial, leaving notes and memorabilia such as toy butterflies. For Karina’s birthday in July, her parents and friends made a small pilgrimage and toasted her with Dom Pérignon. The empty bottle remains by the stone memorial bearing the inscription “Karina: 1986”, the year she was born, and the symbol for infinity.
The death of Karina Vetrano, a vivacious 30-year-old speech pathologist who lived with her parents in Howard Beach, triggered a massive police investigation and search for the killer. For six frustrating months, officers in a special task force combed the park and surrounding areas of Queens for leads.
In early February, detectives arrested Chanel Lewis, 20, of Brooklyn and charged him in Karina’s killing.
Police said Lewis admitted attacking Karina, dragging her through a puddle on the trail and knocking out one of her teeth. DNA found on the woman’s body was a direct match to Lewis, investigators said. Lewis is being held without bail and has been undergoing psychological tests. He pleaded not guilty, and his family insists he is innocent.
The killing stunned the tightly knit Howard Beach community, which banded together to assist police by providing surveillance videos, calling in hundreds of leads and adorning trees, storefronts and homes with white ribbons as sign of solidarity.
Vetrano, a retired city firefighter, said he lost the joy and excitement in life when Karina was killed, and her loss left him searching for a new purpose.
He still manages a construction and roofing business and dotes on his 15-month old grandson, Jude, the child of his eldest daughter, Tana, and her husband. Vetrano and his wife have also become strong advocates of familial DNA testing, which they continue to support even though cops made an arrest in Karina’s case without it. New York State approved the use of the technique in criminal cases in June.
Catherine Vetrano has declined to comment about the case. But those familiar with her said she is in a constant state of rage over the way her daughter was killed. She has visited the memorial garden only twice — on Easter and for Karina’s birthday.
So Philip Vetrano explained it is up to him to tend to the memorial space and minister to the wildlife — particularly the cats his daughter liked so much.
On Wednesday night, beginning at 6:30 p.m., the Vetranos and an expected crowd of hundreds will mark the anniversary of Karina’s death by walking about a mile from their home on 84th Street and 164th Avenue to St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church on 83rd Street.