QUEENS — A Howard Beach woman was found strangled Tuesday night near Gateway National Park after her father called police when she failed to return home from her evening jog, police said.
Karina Vetrano, 30, was found face-down by her father who was searching with police in the marshland area near 161st Avenue and 78th Street about 10:40 p.m. Tuesday, police said. Investigators said they are also looking into signs of sexual assault.
The St. John's University grad, who was last seen leaving her home on 84th Street near 165th Avenue to run in the park, was reported missing at 7 p.m. by her dad, a former firefighter, police said.
Vetrano usually jogged in the area with her father, who had warned her not to run without him on the path where her body was found, according to NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.
"If you're a runner, you understand, you run every night," said Boyce. "So she went and she said she'd be all right."
She had been texting a friend during her run when she suddenly stopped responding to messages from her friend and several phone calls from her father, Boyce said.
The father contacted a police chief who lived in the area and he called 911 and started to search for the missing woman, said Boyce.
"The father then went into the woods. They then found the body," the chief said.
Vetrano's pants had been moved in the attack and there was evidence of sexual assault, according to police sources.
"There's evidence of strangulation, asphyxiation," said Boyce.
Local residents said that the area around the trail where Vetrano was found is overgrown with weeds that hide animals and an encampment of tents and shacks.
"You have weeds out here basically welcoming crime," said Edward Schnepf, 37, a local who went to school with Vetrano. "Somebody could be hiding and jump out and grab you."
"You shouldn't be murdered for going jogging."
"I don't even walk the trail," said Frank Guglietta, 67, a local resident who lives near the trail. "To me, it's spooky."
"Everybody would see her jogging. She's been running for years. It's a routine of hers. This has everyone very nervous."
Police are searching Vetrano's cell phone, talking to park regulars and looking for nearby video surveillance footage but no suspects have been identified as of Wednesday morning, the chief said.
Vetrano's family was not available to comment but neighbor Dorothy Tuccillo, 48, neighbor, said Vetrano's mother has been sick with cancer.
"They're a very nice family," said Tuccillo. "It's just terrible, terrible."
Friends were shaken by the news of Vetrano's death. They described her as a valuable friend and an avid runner.
"She always saw the best of things," said Rino Bresciani, 34, co-owner SRG Fashion, where Vetrano helped out as a social promoter and waitress. "Any time we had an event and we ever needed anyone, she'd come and she wouldn't take any pay."
Bresciani and Vetrano had been friends for 15 years since they were students together at Archbishop Molloy High School, where Vetrano ran for the school's athletic department.
"Running was a huge part of her life," Bresciani said. "It gave her a sense of freedom and a sense of escape."
Archbishop Molloy posted a message on Twitter to request alumni pray for Vetrano.
Please join us in prayer for the repose of the soul of Karina Vetrano, Class of 2004. See information below. pic.twitter.com/v1ATEmYYKJ— Molloy Alumni (@StannerAlumni) August 3, 2016
Family friend Albert Aldo Puentes, 31, said he's known Vetrano since they were students at St. Helen's Catholic Academy.
"She was quiet but kind of funny," said Puentes. "As she got a little older she became smiley and vibrant."
Vetrano had recently earned a masters degree from St. John's University studying speech pathology and was working as a part-time waitress, according to Puentes.
"She was a very witty girl, she always had a smile on her face," said Puentes. "She was very profound in the way she’d speak — people would pay attention."
He added that Vetrano's family was "blown away" by the news of her death.
"There's so much crying right now," he said. "This is girl who was very well loved by her entire neighborhood."
Vetrano's neighbor Henny Berkowitz, 34, remembered her as one of the kids she grew up with in the neighborhood.
"She was always a good girl," said Berkowitz. "Everyone agreed she was on the right path."
RV Rooftop, a nightclub on Cross Bay Blvd. in Howard beach, announced on Twitter that it would host a vigil for Vetrano at 8 p.m.