A Queens grand jury Wednesday ratcheted up the case against the suspect in last summer’s murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano — hitting him with the more serious charges of first-degree murder, officials said.
In a statement Wednesday, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Chanel Lewis, 20, who was arrested in February on second-degree murder charges for killing Vetrano, now faces four counts of the more serious offense of first-degree murder because of what prosecutors said was the aggravated sexual assault committed on the victim.
Vetrano, 30, was strangled and sexually assaulted police said as she went for a jog through Spring Creek Park near her home on August 2. Police said she suffered injuries indicating she had been sexually abused.
In addition, the indictment charges Lewis with five counts of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree aggravated sexual abuse and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse. If convicted, Lewis faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
According to sources familiar with the case, the indictment was returned late Tuesday and filed Wednesday afternoon in Queens State Supreme Court. Lewis has been held without bail since his Feb. 4 arrest. No court date has been set for his arraignment on the indictment.
Vetrano normally ran with her father Philip Vetrano, but he was nursing a back problem and couldn’t accompany his daughter the day she was killed.
Reacting to news of the indictment, he told Newsday that he and his wife Catherine were gratified by the work prosecutors and police did to get the indictment.
“Both me and Cathy are pleased with the grand jury decision” Philip Vetrano said. “They saw the truth, they saw the evidence ... we are waiting for justice and sure we are going to get it.”
The indictment is the latest development in what was a sometimes frustrating investigation for detectives. Investigators were able to recover DNA of a suspect from under Karina’s fingernails, as well as from the iPhone she had been running with. But the recovered DNA didn’t match any genetic profiles in federal and state databases.
The break in the case came in early February when Lt. John Russo, a Howard Beach resident who works for NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, recalled seeing a young man hanging around Spring Creek Park in the months before the Vetrano killing. A complainant from the neighborhood also reported a young man in the area and called police, who issued a summons.
Russo thought there might be a connection, which led investigators to Lewis. During an interview with police, Lewis gave a statement and consented to give a DNA sample, which matched DNA found on Vetrano’s body, said officials.
In a statement, the Legal Aid Society, which is representing Lewis, said: “We reiterate our concerns about how the DNA evidence was collected and the overall reliability of forensic and statement evidence.”
In a related development Wednesday, Russo was given a proclamation from the City Council lauding his efforts in the case. The commendation was given to him by Councilman Eric Ulrich. (D-Howard Beach), who called Russo a “hometown hero.”
“I was humbled, I was honored and a little nervous,” Russo said after the ceremony.