In a hushed Queens courtroom, the parents of slain Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano each told a rapt jury Tuesday about the final minutes they spent with their daughter, from cheerful hugs to viewing her body in a funeral home coffin.
Catherine and Philip Vetrano took the witness stand, one after the other, and told the court about the night of Aug. 2, 2016, when 30-year-old Karina, a budding speech pathologist, went for a jog in Spring Creek Park near their home in Howard Beach and never returned.
The couple, who have been married for more than 40 years, were prosecution witnesses in the retrial of Chanel Lewis, the 22-year-old Brooklyn man accused of strangling Vetrano and sexually abusing her. Lewis’s first trial in November ended with a hung jury.
In a surprise development not seen in the first trial, prosecutors introduced into evidence a final selfie Karina Vetrano took at her home moments before leaving for a jog. The photo showed Vetrano with her mother in the background. Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal introduced the photo as a way of showing jurors Karina’s unmarked body, which hours later would be found battered and bruised in the park weeds.
“That is my beautiful baby,” Catherine Vetrano said, fighting back tears as she was shown an enlarged photo of her daughter’s selfie.
She testified before her husband, entering the courtroom in a dark ensemble and wearing a pendant around her neck that contained some of her daughter's cremated remains — a fact not disclosed to the jury or most courtroom spectators.
Having never before testified in the case, Vetrano fought to remain composed as she told jurors how she had returned home on Aug. 2 after an overnight in a Manhattan hospital and was later met about 5 p.m. by her daughter, who had returned from her job in Manhattan.
After hugs and small talk, Vetrano testified, she went upstairs and remembered still having a hard boiled egg she brought home from the hospital. Vetrano said she called downstairs to Karina and tossed the egg down to her daughter who placed it in the refrigerator. That, she said, was the last time she saw her daughter alive
Prosecutor Leventhal then asked Vetrano when was the next time she saw Karina.
“It was in the funeral home in a coffin,” she answered, fighting back tears.
Defense attorney Robert Moeller made a last-minute effort to block Vetrano from testifying, telling Queens state Supreme Court Judge Michael Aloise that her testimony might be used to buttress emotional recollections of other prospective witnesses in the trial. Moeller also noted that the mother had sat through some earlier testimony.
But Aloise denied the request, noting that both the prosecution and defense hadn’t voiced any earlier objections to Vetrano being in the courtroom.
Philip Vetrano, 62, testified next and essentially repeated his testimony from the first trial. He wore a dark suit and open-necked white shirt Tuesday on the witness stand and described becoming increasingly agitated and concerned when his daughter didn’t return home promptly from her run. Vetrano said he repeatedly tried calling his daughter on her smartphone but got no reply. He said he let out an expletive that his wife heard upstairs. Catherine Vetrano testified that after learning from her husband that he couldn’t contact their daughter, she told him to call John Cassidy, his old friend and a NYPD chief.
Philip Vetrano recalled that he hastily went to the park calling out for his daughter. Soon, NYPD cops arrived with police dogs and began searching the park as night fell, he said.
After investigators located Karina’s cellphone, Vetrano testified, he looked closely at some nearby weeds and saw signs of a disturbance. Vetrano and a friend, Phil Guarnieri, decided to enter the weeds and came across his daughter’s body.
“I let out a sound I never made before or since,” he said from the witness stand Tuesday. Cops pulled him from Karina’s body after he tried to lift her.
“My baby, my baby,” Vetrano remembered crying out.
Vetrano said he went back to his house where hundreds of people were outside. He went up to his wife and put his arms around her and they embraced and cried, he said.
“She knew, she knew,” said Vetrano
The trial continues Wednesday.