Karina Vetrano’s father found her body face-down in the marshes 20 feet from the jogging path, her teeth knocked out, her hands still clenching the tall weeds that now choke the neighborhood’s crumbling park. She had been murdered less than two hours after leaving home for a run.
Vetrano was killed in a Queens, New York, park last Tuesday. But during a town hall meeting six days later, her close-knit community of Howard Beach had little more information than they did the day of her slaying—only anger and anxiety over a park that has long been a sore spot for the neighborhood.
Its official name is Spring Creek Park, a sprawling 17-acre parcel wedged between the ocean and the Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach. But locals call it the Baja, or even more commonly the Weeds, named for the 11-foot reeds that encroach on the narrow jogging path and river. In a community of trim one- and two-story homes, the unruly Weeds stand out as a “dumping ground,” usually for trash, but all too often for bodies.
People in Howard Beach remember Vetrano as kind, and well-liked. The 30-year-old was that kind of person, and Howard Beach is that kind of neighborhood, where people introduce themselves—as one did Monday night—as the boyfriend of the cousin of the deceased. “This is basically an Italian immigrant community. Close-knit. People have each other’s backs,” resident Cathy Brancatel told The Daily Beast. “Everybody on every block knows somebody.”
Family and neighbors knew Vetrano as a nature lover, an unstoppable force. She kept the words “self-respect” taped above her bedroom mirror. She was close with her family, jogging with her father, Phillip, nearly every day until he was sidelined by a back injury. And she loved butterflies, the kind that flew in the Weeds in summer.
Footage from around 5:30 Tuesday evening shows Vetrano jogging into the Weeds. Her father had cautioned her not to jog there alone. Few locals would just go there for a stroll, Howard Beach resident Anne Mastropietro said. The area is a haven for teenagers on dirt bikes, homeless encampments, and religious sects performing ritual chicken sacrifices.
Technically a national park, the Weeds are outside the purview of the local parks department, which means locals’ requests for security cameras, better lighting, and fewer weeds have been ignored by national agencies. The border fences have been wrenched apart. Litter and weeds grow virtually unencumbered. Police patrol the reed-lined paths approximately once a week.
Once Vetrano entered the Weeds, authorities aren’t sure what happened. Their only footage comes from surveillance cameras mounted outside the park and its impenetrable weeds. Someone—maybe one person, maybe multiple—confronted her on the jogging path, NYPD Deputy Chief Michael Kemper said Monday night. Vetrano was sexually assaulted, strangled to death, and left in the overgrown areas off the track. They have no strong suspects, no persons of interest, only some possible DNA leads, Kemper said.
The lack of leads has sparked anxiety among some Howard Beach residents. “How safe are our children?” one woman asked Chief Kemper during the Monday town hall. But the Vetrano family says their daughter’s killer or killers will face justice. In a Sunday press conference outside her home, Vetrano’s mother, Cathy, addressed her daughter’s killer directly, in words many grieving mothers might feel, but few have the strength to voice.
“Whoever you are,” Cathy Vetrano said, “I’m here to remind you in case you don’t already know, that now it’s the whole entire world against you. The whole entire world knows what a pathetic, puny, weak piece of filth you are. The whole world knows that. And soon, I know, they’re all gonna know your face as well. Soon we’re gonna have a face to the dickless piece of garbage that you are. And above and beyond all, you know that my daughter was a force to be reckoned with, and I guarantee you, I guarantee you, you motherfucker, that you will be reckoning with that force not only for the rest of your pathetic life, but for the rest of eternity as you fucking burn in hell. I guarantee you that. My daughter was a big believer of karma, and as you can see, she’s magical. The whole world knows she’s magical. And I guarantee you, you will pay forever.”
Other Howard Beach residents, especially women, say they feel less safe, or are taking extra safety precautions in the usually low-crime neighborhood. At the Monday town hall, multiple people mentioned the brutal assault of a young woman in the nearby neighborhood of Rockaway. The case remains unsolved and the young woman’s mother, in attendance at the town hall, said her daughter remained traumatized, their family helpless without new information. Other attendees mentioned a 27-year-old New York woman who was similarly assaulted and murdered during a jog in Massachusetts on Sunday. (Kemper said there appeared to be no relation between the attacks.)
A woman at the town hall, also named Karina, also a frequent jogger in the Weeds, said she had stopped running there since Vetrano’s body was discovered there. “I’m asking for a petition for the Weeds to be transformed,” she said. “Not just into a wildlife preservation, but into a park.”
Other residents said they’d be just as happy closing down the troubled parkland. “Just kill ’em,” one woman at the town hall shouted when a National Parks official cited a half-million-dollar price tag just for mowing the thick weeds once. “Burn ’em down.”
Fear of crime keeps many Howard Beach residents out of the Weeds, which has a dark reputation as a dumping ground for bodies. Last August, local construction worker Gary Russo was found hanging in the Weeds of apparent suicide. With a voice that earned him the nickname “Second Ave Sinatra,” Russo was famous for singing during lunch breaks on construction sites. He made national headlines in 2011 when a passerby filmed him singing Sinatra classics in his hardhat.
After a 2013 brushfire in the Weeds, local officials found the bodies of two young men in the overgrown area. Both had been shot to death and hidden in the low-traffic park, where police say the brushfire might have been started to destroy their remains. In 2006, graduate student Imette St. Guillen’s body was deposited near the park in a high-profile murder case. In the 1930s, the park was rumored to be a mass graveyard for victims of the Gambino mafia family, and by the “Murder Incorporated” crime organizations.
“It’s too much,” Brancatel said. “It’s not someplace you’d go to have a picnic, I tell you that.”