As the Brooklyn man accused of murdering Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano was arraigned Tuesday, a Queens prosecutor made public a statement the suspect allegedly gave to police saying he had “just lost it.”
Chanel Lewis, 20, pleaded not guilty in Queens Supreme Court to charges of murder, strangulation and sexual abuse in a packed courtroom that included Vetrano’s parents and family supporters, the Queens district attorney said.
If convicted, Lewis would face life in prison without parole. He was represented by a Legal Aid Society lawyer.
Vetrano, 30, was last seen jogging about 5 p.m. Aug. 2 in the Spring Creek Park section of Howard Beach. She was later reported missing that evening to the NYPD by her father, Phil Vetrano, when she did not return home. Vetrano’s body was discovered in the marshland area near 161st Avenue and 78th Street by police officers and her father later that night,
She “was running toward me and I just lost it,” Lewis is alleged to have told officers when he was arrested Feb. 5. He has been held without bail since then.
Lewis then described punching the young woman, breaking her teeth, strangling her and dragging her into the marsh after a ferocious struggle, according to the prosecutor who presented the police account to the court.
Lewis went on to say, “I’m sorry for what I did,” according to the transcript of his conversations with police.
Richard Lewis, the suspect’s father, denied that his son was involved and said he was shocked by the arrest. Lewis’s mother contends that her son was framed.
Vetrano, a St. John’s University alum was a speech therapist and aspiring writer and poet.
Vetrano’s father relentlessly kept her memory alive during the six-month search for her killer. Shortly after her death, a vigil was held along the route that she jogged by 165th Avenue and 84th Avenue in the stunned Howard Beach community, which rallied around the family. A gofundme page was set up and raised over $250,000 within two weeks to “reward anyone providing information” on her murder.
After diving through the reports, NYPD Detective John Russo, a Howard Beach resident remembered a call about a “suspicious person” made in the area three months prior to the murder which eventually led to Lewis’s arrest. Atlhough the Brooklyn man had no arrest record, he had been issued three summonses for suspicious behavior.
Once Lewis voluntarily agreed to DNA testing, the NYPD received a match to the DNA evidence from Vetrano’s body. Chief of Detectives Robert K. Boyce said the Queens South Homicide Squad used DNA testing to help narrow the search for Vetrano’s killer by going through 600 DNA samples.
Vetrano’s savage murder inspired Queens DA Richard Brown to call on the New York State Commission on Forensic Science in December to expand the use of familial DNA testing for unsolved cases. This will allow authorities to search DNA databases for “potential relatives of DNA recovered,” according to elected officials.
On July 13, a month before the one-year anniversary of Vetrano’s killing, Lewis is due back in court.
Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose