Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Spring Creek Park - A Year After The Murder

A loving memorial to Karina Vetrano has been carved out of the jungle by her father in the area where she was found.   Tall sunflower stocks overlook a grey slate marker where KARINA is etched into the stone. Slate benches have been arranged in a semicircle.    (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge.

This evening the Vetrano family will be joined by family, friends and neighbors for a first anniversary walk to St. Helen’s Church for moment of silence and prayer to honor, “Our Angel, Karina.”  


By Geoffrey Croft

When is a park a liability?  When a community does not feel safe and scarcely utilizes it. For decades many residents who live near Spring Creek Park have faced that reality.       

What could be an oasis,  a welcoming eden is instead a liability.  Long neglected by the Federal government, and before that by the land’s previous owner the City’s Parks Department,  for decades area residents have complained about the deplorable conditions found in this severally neglected and overgrown natural area.

There are plans to change that.

Today marks the one year anniversary of the brutal slaying of 30-year-old Karina Vetrano, a woman who lost her life doing what she loved, enjoying nature and running in a public park.

Karena's name is etched into a grey slate marker in the area where she was killed. A silhouette of a butterfly and the year she was born 1986 is also carved in the stone.

The killing, and the seemingly random nature and brutality of the crime, shocked the Howard Beach Community and reverberated throughout the city.   

 "She was unlucky that day,"  Philip Vetrano the victim's father said,  commenting on the random nature of his daughter meeting the suspect on that terrible summer day. 

For months after the crime, anger and sadness were clearly palpable in this Howard Beach community. Conversations with somber faced residents immediately turned to the senseless killing.  

Hundreds of white ribbons, a symbol of anti-violence against women, adorned trees and utility poles, and home-made signs including a star which expressed inspirational messages of hope, (below in 2016) could be found as far as a mile away. The heartbreaking symbols, an out pouring of shared community grief. 

There were also heartbreaking symbols throughout this neighborhood of neatly trimmed lawns.  Hundreds of white ribbons, a symbol of anti-violence against women, adorned trees and utility poles, and home-made signs, some in the shape of a star containing inspirational messages of hope, could be found as far as a mile away -  a tremendous outpouring of shared community grief.  

“Why?” an eastern European woman asked as she pushed a baby carriage past a NYPD wanted poster seeking information about the killer.

“She was so young, so beautiful.” 

A few days away from the one year anniversary these symbols have mostly disappeared from public view.  A few tattered ribbons and faded signs remain. The Wanted posters that also once dotted the landscape have all been removed.   

A visit a year after the murder provides a chilling reminder of the conditions she faced that day.  The highly aggressive phragmites weeds that provided cover for the crime have grown back even stronger.  

The forensic grid area where police investigators worked around the clock for weeks, desperately trying to retrieve evidence, is unrecognizable today.   Invasive plants, vegetation that grows upwards of twelve feet high has completely enveloped the area.  

A few yards away from the crime area the unpaved service road is virtually impassable, a solid wall of vegetation on both sides completes the isolation.   

Just off the dirt road a loving memorial to Karina has been carved out of the jungle in the area where she was found.  Tall sunflower stocks overlook a grey slate marker where KARINA is etched into the stone. A silhouette of a butterfly and the year she was born 1986 is carved underneath it.  Slate benches have been arranged in a semicircle.  

Shortly after 5:46pm on August 2, 2015, Karina Vetrano stepped over the low guardrail (top right) on the corner of 83rd St. & 164th Avenue though the invasive weeds and entered Spring Creek Park as she and her father had done countless times before to go for a run.  The area is less than a block away from her family home.  Her body was found less than a half a mile away along a dirt service road surrounded on both sides by a solid wall of phragmites. She was found strangled, beaten and partly nude. Teeth were knocked out and bruises consistent with being dragged through the weeds her found on her body.

The killing brought the management policy of natural areas, in particular, or the lack thereof, as well as how these areas are policed, sharply into public focus.   

For more than five decades, area residents have complained about the impenetrable weeds that cover most of the park. Some of these weeds grow as high as twelve feet creating a dangerous environment which not only fuel wild fires and provide shelter for ticks and mosquitos, but also provide cover for humans that might intend to do harm.     

Those complaints have fallen on deaf ears. 

Since taking over tens of thousands of park acres from the City in the 70’s the Federal government’s policy towards its “natural areas" has been for the most part "let nature take its course."  In other words minimal maintenance if anything at all.    

Proper natural area management is an integral part of the success and sustainability of our park system, including those within urban areas. Many would argue especially in urban areas.   

Twenty-six percent of New York City is parkland, and most of it is under the jurisdiction of City and Federal government. The majority of this parkland is made up of natural areas.    

Spring Creek Park is dominated by highly invasive, non-native plants which cannibalize desired vegetation, limiting biodiversity, and preventing a healthy eco-system.    

Compounding the problem is the history of the site, which is not natural at all.  One hundred precent of Spring Creek Park was created when the government filled in the marsh land in the 50’s.   Some of the fill materials used included contaminates, and illegal dumping over the decades has also added to the problem.     The result has been a fertile breeding ground for the invasive plants that exist today. Phragmites, Japanese knotweed, Porcelainberry, mugwort and other non-native invasive vegetation make up the majority of the upland areas according to an analysis by the National Park Service.  

The condition of the park had a devastating effect last August when a 30 year-old woman, out enjoying the park, was brutally killed under that cover.  

The details are heartbreaking.   

The route Karina Vetrano took the day she was killed. 

On August 2, shortly after 5:46pm Ms. Vetrano stepped over a low guardrail at the corner of 83rd St. & 164th Avenue as she and her father had done countless times before and entered Spring Creek Park, a severely neglected 250 plus acre nature preserve.   

As she ran alone along an 8 foot wide dirt road, she encountered her assailant.  Caught between two solid walls of 12 foot high phragmites on each side she was trapped.  Karina was attacked and brutally beaten about the face. Teeth were knocked out. She was dragged through the weeds where she was sexually assaulted. 

According to the police she put up a fight.   

Her lifeless body was found less than a half mile away from where she had entered the park, along the 2.9 acre long dirt service road that snakes around the 250 acre natural area park managed by the National Park Service in the Howard Beach section of Queens, part of the Gateway National Park system.  

At the time, not a single visible escape route, even to the water, existed between the area where she entered the park and where she was killed.

Can a park be an accessory to murder? There is no doubt that the lack of maintenance in Spring Creek Park contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the senseless killing.   

“We plan to chop down just about every weed at that location until we are satisfied that we got all the evidence,”  a frustrated NYPD chief of detectives Robert Boyce told reporters a few days after the attack.     

“We understand the height of the phragmites is a concern,”  U.S. Park Police Capt. Raymond Closs said at the time referring to the aggressive weed that has taken over much of the park.  

“We are in discussions right now to figure out ways to improve the safety of this park going forward,” he said.    

Bright orange evidence marker cones at the crime scene in August 2016.

Crime Scene 2017.  The area where police investigators worked around the clock for weeks is unrecognizable today.   Invasive plants, vegetation that grow upwards of twelve feet high has completely enveloped the area.   Long gone are the NYPD's diesel powered flood lights used to help investors at the crime scene.  Months later the illumination provided safety lighting to the desolate area.

The NYPD aided by the NPS cut down acres of invasive plants in the crime scene area, in particular, phragmites, which provided cover for the murder and the murderer.    

A month later the National Park Service spend several weeks clearing out the maze-like weeds as part of its annual fire trail maintenance program.    

NPS contractors brought in earth moving machinery, a track and multi terrain loader equipped with steal claws. The vehicle is equipped with a masticator, a large piece of equipment designed to mow and shred brush.    Mastication - mechanical brush mowing - is a temporary and cost effective method of cutting down large expanses of grasses.    

A Bobcat equipped with a masticator is dwarfed by the phragmites as it mows along the park perimeter last September.  Last year NPS wildland fire staff cut down about 30 acres to maintain the 3 mile fire trail in Spring Creek Park which is done once a year.

Although the equipment is brought in to reduce fire danger, area residents say reducing the height and density of the weeds also creates a sense of safety, albeit fleeting.  

Weeks after the murder of Karina Vetrano, the park was virtually unrecognizable.  Dozens of acres of the invasive weeds that helped make this heinous crime possible, had been removed.  

In several areas the thick weeds had been cut back 50 feet along the road where police say Karina met her killer on that tragic day.  In total, 30 acres of invasive species were cut.   The clearing had drastically altered the landscape and provided security improvements by opening up vast viewing corridors in the park.  The public was now able to see Old Mill Creek, part of Jamaica Bay from the interior of the park.    

There were now views and potential escape routes that were not available to Mrs. Vetrano weeks earlier.  

Special efforts need to taken in order to eradicate the weeds, and in particular, phragmites, which posses an extensive root system.  Last August a spokeswoman for Gateway National Recreation area pointed out that simply mowing the weeds wasn’t a viable option.  

 “It grows back very quickly and stronger and becomes more dense after mowing,”   Daphne Yun, acting Public Affairs Officer for Gateway National Recreation Area said.    

In fact, over the course of several weeks, many of the areas mowed after the attack saw these weeds aggressively sprout back up. The area where Ms. Vetrano’s body was found was almost unrecognizable from compared to just a week earlier, as the green stalk-like young phragmites plant had already grown two feet or more. 

Less than two weeks after it had been cleared at the crime scene the highly aggressive Phragmites plant had already grown back more than two feet high.  Today this area is a memorial.

Police Presence 

In the immediate aftermath of the senseless murder the NPS and the NYPD dramatically increased its law enforcement presence.  Federal U.S. Park Police were assigned to the park utilizing overtime. Police utilized all terrain vehicles, cars,  mountain bike, and horses to patrol the park.

U.S. Park Police Capt. Raymond Closs admitted last August that the interior was now being patrolled on a daily basis because of the dense vegetation.  

U.S. Park Police venture into the interior of the park. The vehicle is dwarfed by phragmites which grows upwards of 12 feet high.

At the time just two US Park officers per 12 hour shift were available to patrol the perimeter of the Queens and Brooklyn sections of Gateway National Recreational Jamaica Bay Park area’s more than nine-thousand acres. Two officers for more than nine-thousand acres per shift.  

A couple of hundred feet inside the park weeks after the murder two of the four Federal U.S. Police officers responsible for patrolling nearly ten thousand acres of the federal parkland sat in a patrol car. 

“Budget cuts” an officer explains when asked about the incredibly low number of officers responsible for the amount of land. 

The historically low number of U.S. Park Police assigned to the Jamaica Bay unit took an even bigger hit in the aftermath of 911 when approximately one dozen officers were reassigned to cover the Statue of Liberty Island detail, which included the manning of the Battery Park screening facility.  At the time, the U.S. Park Police detail assigned to the island were also woefully understaffed.  

Community stakeholders involved with the park say there has been improved communication with the NPS and U.S. Park Police since the murder.   

Two additional officers are stationed at Jacob Riis Beach on weekends and an extra patrol for Jamaica Bay has been added throughout the week during the summer.  

  The park's non-native invasive vegetation rises above two mounted NYPD officers patrolling the park's interior in 2016. 

The regular patrols of the park interior ended months ago.  The Federal Park Police detail ended in February after the suspect was caught. 

Exemplary and dogged police work lead to arrest of 20-year-old Chanel Lewis, a Brooklyn resident who police sources say has developmental issues.

The case is pending trial. Lewis’s next court date is September 7, 2017 according to the Queens County District Attorney’s Office.  

An NYPD vehicle required towing assistance after getting in the mud while patrolling the shore line.

A year after the murder, the park perimeter looks much like it did the day she was attacked.  

For the last 40 years Pat Toscano and his wife Jane have lived 50 feet away from where Karina entered the park on that fateful day.     

Mr. Toscano said,  “nothing major” has changed since the murder. The vegetation still grows, and police patrols have largely faded away.   

“The weeds are at full strength like when she entered the park,” Mr. Toscano said over the weekend pointing to the area.  

Several NYPD argus cameras installed weeks after the murder to monitor the park perimeter remain outside their home, across from where Karina was last seen publicly.  

Mrs. Toscano said the height of the weeds were always a concern raising a family, especially with two girls.  

“We have two daughters. I would come home from working late, it was dark you never knew who could be lurking,”  she said.    

He says he is unable to see the Jamaica Bay, even from his second story window.    

August 2016. Isolation and Cover - No Where to Run or Hide.  Police say Karina Vetrano encountered the suspect while jogging along this desolate dirt path in Spring Creek Park where the thick, overgrown dense weeds trapped her.  For years area residents have complained about the park's lack of maintenance including highly aggressive phragmites which grow upwards of twelve feet high.  These concerns have fallen on deaf ears. In August 2016 this lack of urgency had deadly consequences.

August 2017.  The road where she was attacked has reverted back to its normal state, the condition Karina Vetrano would have encountered the evening she was killed. 

A half mile away on 78th Street Donna Sciami says her family has lived directly across from the park since 1962.

“I hate this block, They always forget about us,”  she said describing the lack of maintenance. 

“When my parents bought this house this was supposed to be a park.  That never happened.  The weeds are high and dangerous and you can’t see.  People could hide in the weeds, You can’t see who’s lurking in there.” 

This is expected to change in a few years.

The Future  

A large scale park restoration project has been in the planning stages for several years, a plan the National Park Service says will dramatically alter the landscape and, in turn, provide enhanced security improvements.  

NYS DEC has been awarded $ 69 million dollars from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for the restoration of Spring Creek South, including salt marshes, wetlands, tidal inlets, and upland forest.   

Called The Spring Creek South Storm Resilience and Ecosystem Restoration Project the upcoming work seeks to address several important long-term issues at the site, included added security.  

“The restoration project would remove the phragmites and replace them with native habitat, which would be less dense and offer better lines of sight,” a NPS spokesperson told A Walk In The Park.

"This area has been subject to dredging, infilling and dumping throughout the mid-20th century.  This activity changed the site elevation and the soil which eliminated and degraded the salt marsh community and habitat,” she said.  

In addition U.S. Park Police personel are working with the NY State DEC to incorporate crime prevention through environmental design in the Spring Creek restoration project.

"The idea of crime prevention through environmental design is using design that maximizes safety and security through sight lines and access points,"   Daphne Yun, acting GNRA Public Affairs Officer said in a statement.   

Spring Creek South Project aerial view

The Spring Creek South Storm Resilience and Ecosystem Restoration project area.   Construction on the $ 69 million dollar project is expected to take approximately 18 months. Construction was expected to commence in 2017 but that has been pushed back to 2019.

The DEC project documents on the restoration project touches on the reason(s) for the current condition of the park including the invasives. 

“Prior to Superstorm Sandy, historical actions had profoundly degraded the salt marsh community and habitat at Spring Creek and left the site vulnerable to invasive species.“   

The project is being touted as a way to help reduce the risk of storm damage and flooding in the Howard Beach neighborhood by building a protective berm and restoring over 225 acres of wetland and coastal forest according to the DEC.  

By reshaping the landscape and adding nature-based resilience features, Spring Creek South will complement other storm resilience projects in the area to manage this region’s vulnerability to coastal storms.  

The project will restore native habitat at Spring Creek South to reduce the risk from coastal storms by using green infrastructure and nature-based features to protect neighboring communities. Native plant species  will be reintroduced, Biodiversity will increased.  Salt marsh consisting of Spartina alterniflora will stabilize sediment at the shoreline, while berms and coastal forests will provide flood protection and buffer habitat. These habitats will increase the ecological value of the site in addition to providing resilience benefits.   

The US Army Corps of Engineers is serving as project contractor, and with an architecture and engineering team, is developing the design for the project. The project is designed to complement other flood reduction projects in the Howard Beach and Jamaica Bay areas, and is consistent with the Gateway National Recreation Area General Management Plan.  

The existence of several contaminants were discovered after soil analysis were completed. The site includes metals, pesticides, PAHs and SVOCs, which are typical for a historic landfill.    

One area has also been identified as having high levels of PCBs, which will be removed according to federal guidelines.    

The government's survey of existing vegetation in the park shows the vast amount of plants are invasive. 

Construction should take approximately 2 years and was expected to begin in 2017 but that has been pushed back to 2019.  Planning and design will continue into 2018.  Phase II, the construction portion of the project is anticipated to begin in the summer of 2019 according the NPS.  

In the mean time the community has to make due with the annual fire prevention maintenance work the National Park Service does each year.

Plans to restore the park go as far back to at least the 70’s.  

As part of a comprehensive management plan for all of the Gateway National Recreation Area land in the city, a plan was developed through a multi-year process of outreach, community-based planning, and consultation. More than 75 formal and informal public meetings were conducted with civic groups, governmental agencies and interested citizens. To encourage a wide measure of public participation,  the Federal government had even set up a,” Gateway Hotline,” to answer questions and receive comments.   

Design concepts for Gateway National Recreation Area (N.R.A.), 1979 General Management Plan for Spring Creek called for a “major modification of the existing landscape to allow or encourage restoration of a more diverse natural system. The plan also envisioned active recreation facilities like ball fields, tennis, an overlook of Jamaica Bay and a nature center.  Community gardens, meadows and open space were to be established along the entire eastern boarder of the park.  
The 1978 General Management Plan for Spring Creek encourage restoration of a more diverse natural system while also envisioning active recreation facilities.  The plan was never implemented.   Congress authorized $92 million for the park in 1972 the year Gateway was created, but the money was never appropriated.   For the next 45 years the park has laid fallow, at the mercy of a lack of a funding and the political will to fix it.

The future redevelopment of Spring Creek progressed to development concept plans which according to the Federal government would “move Gateway’s planning one step beyond the general management plan, making it possible to begin final design and construction.”  

Although the plan was, “well received by the public,”  it was never implemented.   

Congress authorized $92 million for the park in 1972 the year Gateway was created, but the money was never appropriated.   For the next 45 years the park has laid fallow, at the mercy of a lack of a funding and the political will to fix it. 

Karina Vetrano, 30 was senselessly murdered while doing what she enjoyed, running in Spring Creek Park.

Remembering Karina 

This evening at 7:00 the Vetrano family will be joined by many family, friends and neighbors who will come together for the first anniversary walk to honor, “Our Angel, Karina.”  

The group will meet at 165th Avenue & 85th Street and walk to St. Helen’s Church where, last August, hundreds of mourners gathered for Karina’s funeral. There,  less than a half mile from where she lost her life, they will have a moment of silence and prayer.  

A walk no family should have to make.

Notice in Sunday's St. Helen's Church bulletin for today's first anniversary walk in memory of Karina Vetrano.

A memorial  to Karina surrounded by sunflowers has been created where police and the victim’s father found her body, facedown amid weeds about 15 feet off a desolate path in the park.  Several slate benches placed in a semi circle.    (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge.

Read More:

Male 20, Arrested In Murder of Queens Jogger In Spring Creek Park 
A Walk In The Park  - February 6, 2017 - By Geoffrey Croft 

A Walk In The Park - February 4, 2017  - By Geoffrey Croft 

A Walk In The Park - August 5, 2016 - By Geoffrey Croft 

A Walk In The Park - August 3, 2016 - By Geoffrey Croft 

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