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Karina Vetrano's memory lives on with secret garden, two years after jogger's death

Philip Vetrano has built a hidden tribute at the spot where he found his daughter's body. And her parents vow to keep her memory alive.

Philip Vetrano examines a red sunflower in July

Philip Vetrano examines a red sunflower in July 2018 in a garden he created in honor of his daughter Karina Vetrano, who was killed when she went for a run near her Howard Beach home on Aug. 2, 2016. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Philip Vetrano refuses to avoid the spot where he found the body of his youngest daughter, Karina, in a Queens park two years ago.

Ever since, the 62-year-old ex-firefighter from Howard Beach has been trying to deal with his grief while keeping his slain daughter’s spirit alive. Vetrano, who has a construction business, has embarked on a mission to create an expansive, secret garden in Karina’s memory.

“Anything you see as a flower here, I planted,” Vetrano said. “Every single thing, one seed at a time.”

Days before the second anniversary of Karina’s killing, Vetrano took a reporter and photographer to the garden. With a pair of long shears, he clipped away weeds to reveal a path that otherwise would be overlooked.

A year ago the site was just a small stone memorial slab with a seat and some flowers that marked the spot where the slain jogger was found.

Now, the area has turned into an expanding meadow of tall yellow and red sunflowers that have enveloped the place of Karina’s death. The garden, in a location known only to the Vetrano family and a few friends, is hidden from the trail where the young jogger desperately fought for her life the night of Aug. 2, 2016.

The two years have done nothing to abate the pain Philip Vetrano says he felt when he discovered his daughter.

As police officers swarmed through the park with him and NYPD helicopters searched for her from above, it was Vetrano who noticed some broken weeds and followed them to a spot where he found the body in Spring Creek Park.

“And there she was,” Vetrano remembered about finding Karina. “And from that moment on my brain has been mush.”

Karina’s death sparked an intensive NYPD investigation to capture her killer, an investigation that followed hundreds of leads for months to no avail. Then, on Feb. 5, 2017, police announced the arrest of a suspect, Chanel Lewis, 20, of East New York in Karina’s strangulation murder. Through his attorneys, Lewis has pleaded not guilty, and the case was in court Wednesday for a pretrial hearing before Queens State Supreme Court Gregory Lasak. A trial could take place this fall.

Karina’s death put her family into a tailspin of anger and grief. Her mother, Cathie, has alternated between feelings of rage and sadness. But the Vetranos have taken steps to cope. Philip has the garden, which he visits each day. Cathie has taken to keeping a journal and reading her daughter’s writings. The couple also sponsor a scholarship fund. Their daughter Tana, her husband and toddler grandson, Jude, often visit.

Still, their loss is palpable.

“Sometimes it seems like it happened yesterday,” Philip Vetrano said in the kitchen of their home. “I know it happened two years ago but it never feels like two years, it is like yesterday she was leaning up against that counter.”

A kitchen counter has Karina’s photo in a silver frame, in front of which is a candle and a small sesame seed bagel—her favorite breakfast food—and a piece of chocolate. A large photograph of her is propped against a couch and a small room off the living room serves as a shrine.

Karina, who was training to run a marathon in Cuba, worked as a speech pathologist after graduating with a master's degree from St. John's University.  She left for a training run through the park late in the afternoon of Aug. 2. Her father usually went with her but couldn’t because of a back problem.

A final surveillance video image captured Karina running north up 83rd Street before entering Spring Creek Park. Once in the park, Karina had the choice of turning east, as she often did, but instead turned west towards a copse of trees where police alleged she was attacked by Lewis.

The Vetranos opted to cremate Karina because they couldn’t bear having her buried. Both parents wear little vials containing her ashes and have a larger urn in the house. The Vetranos attend each court appearance for Lewis, whose family also is present. In court, Cathie holds a brass crucifix that had been displayed over Karina’s coffin.

“If he is truly God-fearing, that should remind him of his fear for God,” Cathie Vetrano said of Lewis.

The Vetranos find it tough to sit in the same courtroom as Lewis but are committed to doing so until the case is resolved.

“That is no easy feat,” Cathie Vetrano said of the court appearances.

“There can’t be any kind of definitive closure, beginning to heal, until this is done,” Philip Vetrano said. “We are still going through this.”

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