BY JON CRONIN
After a week of heart wrenching over the murder of their beloved neighbor Karina Vetrano, the Howard Beach community’s fearful residents filled St. Helen’s Church on Monday night to hear officials explain how families will continue to be safe and what is being done to find the vicious murderer.
On Aug. 2, Vetrano, 30, had been running westbound on a secluded pathway in Spring Creek Park at 5 p.m. When her father didn’t hear from her by 7 p.m., he called a friend and neighbor in the NYPD. A search party was formed and Vetrano’s body was found at 9 p.m. in the weeds about 20 feet off the path. The evidence shows that she was beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled to death in broad daylight.
Officials stated that the church was beyond its 450-seat capacity. Many more residents stood outside St. Helen’s listening to the meeting through speakers.
Chief of Patrol Carlos Gomez assured the crowd they would see an increase in police officers on their streets as well as specially trained officers who are part of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group.
Gomez, who was the 106th Precinct commanding officer from 1999 to 2000, said, “I really have a connection and a bond to this community. I still speak to many friends that I have made here.
“The commitment is here from our department. I promise you, we will solve this.”
Twice during the evening, residents asked if their families were safe. Chief Michael Kemper replied early in the evening that he could not answer the question. Gomez said later in the evening that there is an increased police presence in the area.
In the crowd, the civilian patrol group the Guardian Angels listened in. After the meeting, Greg Anzuela, a Far Rockaway resident and member of the Guardian Angels, stated that about five of their members have been patrolling the neighborhood during the last week.
Kemper said so far they have received 30 tips on their Crime Stopper hotline. “They are each being fully vetted.” The reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer was doubled on Tuesday to $20,000.
He noted they have gotten a dozen videos from homes and businesses in the community that they are analyzing. Kemper added, “I have never seen the level of cooperation between police and community that I have seen in the last week, and I’ve been doing this a long time.” He pointed out that police have visited some homes twice to obtain footage from different times in the day.
He said that they are still processing forensic evidence from the crime scene and are visiting and continue to visit the homes of convicted sex offenders in the area.
Borough President Melinda Katz got thunderous applause at the meeting when she announced that she has allocated funding for security cameras to survey the entrance to the park. “The money’s there, the money is in the budget for it. I wish it was there earlier.”
She added, “If you enter there, you exit there. You’re gonna be filmed.”
Kemper stated, “We’re not gonna abandon this community. This investigation is only six days old.”
Captain James Fey, commanding officer of the 106th Precinct, said he “fully intends” to have his officers in the park. He said the precinct recently obtained utility vehicles called “gators,” which he later described as golf carts with large tires.
Jennifer Nersesian, a superintendent at Gateway National Recreation Area, which Spring Creek Park is a part of, said there will be a more “robust presence” in the park. Speaking to the concern about 11- foot weeds, Nersesian said they’re called phragmites, an invasive species that is difficult to get rid of. She noted a nearby burn of 40 acres of phragmites six weeks ago that have come back stronger and taller in the short period.
Most of the phragmites in Spring Creek had burned in a large fire in March 2014, but grew back taller and stronger by the end of the summer.
A close member of the Vetrano family stated that he recently visited the park with the victim’s father, Phil, where they fed animals. He said he visited the place as a child with friends and that Karina loved it. He noted that on the day of Karina’s fateful jog, the sun was on the water and it was a beautiful view.
Cap. Pete Culver of the Park Police said they will be inspecting the park further, starting with the suspected “homeless encampments” residents have been concerned about. He added that there will be police on ATVs, horseback and dirt bikes patrolling the park.
After the meeting, a police source stated that although the encampments are a frequently discussed subject, they had yet to see any.
Police also fielded a question on whether or not this murder could be related to another of a New York City resident murdered while jogging near her parents’ home in Massachusetts. Kemper stated the NYPD has shared notes with the Massachusetts police.
Regarding a possible link between the Howard Beach murder and a more local sexual assault case, the mother of a young woman, who was beaten, then raped and left propped up at the Social Security office near Beach 113 Street in Rockaway Park, spoke at the meeting asking for attention in her daughter’s case. She said her daughter was in Elmhurst Hospital Center for a week before she knew where she was. The woman said she had spoken with officers at the 100th Precinct, but she did not feel she was getting attention. Kemper stated that he would speak with her after the meeting, to which the crowd cheered.
Kemper stated that they didn’t believe there was a link between the Rockaway Park incident and the one in Howard Beach.
Reach Editor Jon Cronin at 718-367-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin.