The NYPD star detective credited with breaking the August 2016 murder case of jogger Karina Vetrano took the stand in a Queens courtroom Thursday, recounting how his instincts as a burglary investigator made him suspicious about the Brooklyn man later arrested in the case.
Lt. John Russo, who coordinates investigations for the chief of detectives, related on the witness stand how he first spotted Chanel Lewis, 22, the man accused of murdering and sexually abusing Vetrano. He said Lewis was acting suspiciously in the victim’s Howard Beach neighborhood in late May 2016, some two months before the killing.
Lewis of East New York is on trial for the second time. His first trial ended in a mistrial in November with a hung jury.
Lewis was arrested February 2017 and taken into custody after Russo recalled an earlier encounter police had with Lewis in Howard Beach. Russo’s recollection ultimately led to detectives interviewing Lewis and getting him to consent to give a sample of his DNA, which police said matched genetic material found on the 30-year-old Vetrano’s body and her cellphone found in the weeds of Spring Creek Park.
Russo, who also testified in the first trial, recalled how he spotted Lewis acting suspiciously on May 30, 2016, as he walked through Howard Beach. Russo said that he thought Lewis was overdressed in a hoodie for such a warm day and had his suspicions further fueled by the way he saw Lewis walking stopping and looking at homes in the neighborhood.
"I thought it very odd,” said Russo.
In court, Russo who resided in Howard Beach, said he happened to be in his car with his two young daughters and followed Lewis in his car as he meandered through the neighborhood. Russo, who has been with the NYPD for 21 years, said he called 911 because Lewis’s actions seemed to him to be that of a burglar casing locations and taking counter-surveillance measures. However, Russo said he lost Lewis near Cross Bay Boulevard. Russo told 911 he didn’t know the race or ethnicity of the “dark skinned” man.
On May 31, Howard Beach businessman Angelo Gurino called 911 about a man walking along the side of homes. Russo was notified through his smartphone and testified that he then went to Howard Beach, spotted Lewis and called precinct cops. After interviewing Lewis, the precinct cops said there was nothing amiss, let him go, giving him a ride to the Rockaways where he went to a local McDonald's to eat.
In pretrial proceedings, Legal Aid Society lawyers had unsuccessfully argued that police got Lewis’ name after they stopped him illegally based on his race. Lewis is black. On Thursday, prosecutor Brad Leventhal asked Russo if he became suspicious of Lewis because of his skin color. The defense's objection to the question was sustained by Judge Michael Aloise. Russo then explained what drew his attention to Lewis.
In a pretrial decision before the second trial, then-trial Judge Gregory Lasak, agreed with prosecutors that police are permitted to retain names of people they stop, regardless of the legality of the encounter. The trial continues Monday.