Karina Vetrano wasn’t afraid to express herself.
The New Yorker loved to travel and party with friends, and perfectly-posed pictures of the attractive 30-year-old on her social media gave her followers a glimpse into an enviable lifestyle.
But there was so much more to Karina.
Her work as a speech pathologist for children with autism was an example of how she loved to give back.
Anyone who spent time with Karina knew she was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.
She lived at home in the Howard Beach area of Queens, New York, with her parents, Phil and Cathie.
As well as being strong in mind, Karina was strong in body, too.
Growing up, she had surgery on her legs and doctors warned her she might never be able to run, but she defied them all.
Karina was a keen jogger and loved to go for runs with her dad, Phil.
The retired firefighter, who had been a first responder at the 9/11 attacks, was very close to his youngest daughter and they loved spending time together.
In the late afternoon of August 2, 2016, Karina decided to go for a run when she got home from work.
Phil was recovering from a back injury and couldn’t go with her.
He suggested she shouldn’t go alone, but Karina reassured him that she would be fine.
Karina headed off to Spring Creek Park at around 5pm, which was less than a block from her home.
When she didn’t return at the time expected, her dad repeatedly tried to call her, but there was no answer.
Found dead by her dad
Convinced something was wrong, Phil contacted a neighbour, who was also a police chief, and they coordinated a search of the park.
At around 11pm, a distraught Phil found the body of his daughter face down in grass.
He fell to his knees screaming as he cradled his lifeless daughter in his arms.
Karina was covered in cuts and bruises where she’d tried to fight off her attacker.
There were signs of a sexual attack with her jogging shorts pulled down.
Phil ran home to tell his wife and they sobbed in the street in disbelief.
An autopsy revealed Karina had been hit on the head before being dragged off the path.
She’d fought so hard that she’d cracked her teeth when she bit her attacker and there was grass in her hands where she’d desperately tried to hold on as she’d been dragged along.
But she’d been overpowered and strangled to death so hard that there was a handprint found on her neck.
Karina’s fight for life had given police the DNA they would need to find her killer.
Some was found under Karina’s fingernails, on her neck and on her phone, which had been tossed several feet away.
That crucial evidence gave hope that her killer would be found quickly and brought to justice.
The case started one of the biggest manhunts in the New York Police Department’s recent history.
A huge task force was assigned to the investigation and when there was no DNA match in the system, over 600 men were tested.
Karina’s family started to campaign for the use of familial DNA testing (which uses genetic material from relatives) as they believed it would help them find her attacker.
For months, appeals were made for information and Karina’s death attracted national media attention.
Rewards of over $350,000 were offered by police and her family.
Disbelief continually abounded that a woman could be attacked and killed in broad daylight, with DNA left at the scene, and yet her case remain unsolved.
Police revealed a sketch of a ‘person of interest’ and a surveillance video was released of Karina running minutes before her attack.
It was the last footage of her alive.
The case pointed the spotlight on women who run alone and raised concerns that, despite having the killer’s DNA, it couldn’t be matched.
Finally, there was a breakthrough in the case.
In February 2017, police announced they had arrested a suspect.
Chanel Lewis, 20, lived in Brooklyn and had been seen acting suspiciously around the park several times.
Going on a hunch, a detective alerted investigators and Chanel’s DNA was taken.
It was a match.
Chanel was unemployed and lived with his mum in a low-income housing project less than three miles from the crime scene.
Chanel had no criminal record but he was known to have a ‘hatred for women’.
He’d once told a teacher that he wanted to ‘stab all girls’ at his school and, as a teenager, made emergency calls saying he wanted to hurt women.
At first, he denied killing Karina, but after an interrogation he confessed that he’d done it because he had been angry at a neighbour playing loud music and, after going for a walk, he’d ‘just lost it’.
Chanel said that as Karina had jogged past, he’d punched her and dragged her body into the grassland.
‘I beat her to let my emotions out,’ he said.
‘I was beating her and was mad at her. I finished her off.’
He denied sexually assaulting her.
Investigators determined that before heading to the park, he’d argued with his family.
Chanel never revealed whether he’d seen Karina before, so it was most likely a completely random encounter.
When he returned home that evening, his mum noted that he looked ‘dishevelled’ and his clothes were torn.
Chanel said he’d been mugged but no evidence ever supported it.
The next day, Chanel’s dad had taken him to the local hospital to treat cuts on his body and a hand injury.
Chanel was charged with Karina’s murder.
In November 2018, a trial began and Chanel pleaded not guilty.
The jury heard how Karina was pulled from the pathway and brutally murdered.
The prosecution said that Chanel had ‘squeezed’ the life out of her.
Karina’s dad testified how he’d desperately tried to find his daughter and how his world came to an end when he did.
The jury saw Chanel’s taped confession – and listened to an expert saying that Chanel’s DNA had a one-in- six-trillion chance of someone else sharing the genetic profile.
And yet still the jury were hung on grounds that the DNA could have been contaminated – especially when her dad lifted his daughter to his chest when he found her.
And the defence said Chanel’s confession was coerced.
They said Chanel had simply repeated information he’d heard in news reports.
The judge declared a mistrial.
It was devastating for Karina’s loved ones.
Justice is served
The second trial began in March this year.
Again, the defence tried to say Chanel had been forced to confess and that the DNA had been tainted.
They said the case had been poorly investigated and the police needed a result so fitted him up.
But the prosecution said Chanel’s mobile could be placed in the area of the park that Karina had been found.
He’d also downloaded images of the crime scene and had looked up ‘second chances’ on the internet.
They reminded the jury that Chanel’s DNA was found on Karina’s body.
In April, Chanel, now 22, was found guilty of first-degree murder and sexual abuse after just five hours of deliberation.
Applause erupted throughout the court.
At the sentencing, Karina’s dad said his family would never recover.
‘That monster killed four people the night of August 2,’ he said.
‘One is in heaven.
'The other three walk the Earth as zombies, just waiting to die to be with Karina again.
'Only my faith in God and my belief in heaven keeps me from killing myself for fear of not being allowed into heaven to see my baby again.’
Cathie called her daughter a ‘valiant warrior’ and a ‘queen’ and said Chanel was a ‘pathetic, evil coward’ who had dumped her daughter then slithered away like a snake.
‘My hope is that you live a long life within the prison of the law and the prison of your conscience,’ she told him.
‘The second you put your hands on a child of God, you rejected the Holy Spirit and acted out as the devil.
'The angels wept and the devils danced in delight as you began to torture and impose the most brutal death on my daughter.’
Chanel yawned during victim impact statements, then said, ‘The only thing I want to say is, I’m innocent.
'I’m sorry for the family’s loss, but I didn’t do this.’
He was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
The judge said he hoped Chanel would seek forgiveness and eventually admit to the crime.
‘But when you do do it, it’ll be in a cage.
'That’s a guarantee,’ he said.
On Karina’s website, she talked about being a writer, saying it was ‘not by choice, but by compulsion’.
She felt a desire to share her gifts to help others, while Chanel gave in to the worst impulse anyone could have – the compulsion to kill.
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