HOWARD BEACH — The streets around the marsh area where jogger Karina Vetrano was murdered last week will get security cameras funded by the borough president's office — but some rattled neighbors would rather see the whole park "burn" instead.
Hundreds of residents packed inside St. Helen's Church for a town hall on Monday to ask questions about the investigation into Vetrano's murder last week at Spring Creek Park, as her killer remains on the loose. Dozens more residents stood outside, listening to the meeting on loudspeakers.
The event was organized by elected officials and civic leaders, who said they wanted to address any rumors spreading around the neighborhood. They wanted to wait to hold the meeting until after Vetrano's funeral, they said, which was held inside the church Saturday.
"This case is being fully investigated by the best detectives in the world," NYPD Deputy Chief Michael Kemper told the anxious crowd. While many questions couldn't be answered because the investigation is still very active, he said they've interviewed hundreds of people and collected security footage from more than 12 homes. They've also spoken to convicted sex offenders who live in the area, he said.
Police have received 30 Crime Stopper tips since increasing the reward to $10,000, a sharp increase from the three they got when the reward was just $2,500, they said.
Kemper said the community's cooperation with the police was the "best I've ever seen" in his entire career as a police officer.
Locals asked him whether they should be concerned about their own safety.
"Are we a little safer over here? Is it random?" one woman asked. Kemper said he didn't know and that officials are still hunting for the suspect.
Locals also asked if Vetrano's murder might be related to the death Sunday of Vanessa Marcotte, 27, a Google New York employee who was found dead in Massachusetts after going for a jog there.
"We are comparing notes," Kemper said of their communication with Massachusetts police. "We don't believe there is a connection. With that said we are going to continue to share notes and share evidence as both cases progress."
Responding to a petition circulated by the community, Borough President Melinda Katz announced she allocated funding to pay for cameras around the entrances, which had previously been challenging to obtain because the park is located on federal land.
"I wish [the money] had been there previously, but it's there now," she said.
"I think it's important for folks to know, you enter there, you exit there, you're going to be filmed."
Neighbors asked questions about safety, the investigation and Spring Creek Park at the town hall. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)
There were doubts, though, that the cameras could do much good.
"Are these cameras going to see inside the 11-foot high weeds?" one woman asked. "We have derelicts, we have drug addicts living in the weeds."
One man shouted the park should be "burned to the ground."
Others criticized the National Park Service, which maintains the area.
"That's not a park, that's a dumping ground," one man said. He's watched from his house as people dump tires and other garbage in the area.
The expansive Spring Creek Park, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, surrounds a large portion of Howard Beach.
For decades, civic groups complained about safety there. They've asked for cameras, better lights, more federal police or even a park ranger monitoring the area, residents said at the meeting.
An NYPD car parked along Spring Creek Park last week as the investigation into Karina Vetrano's murder continues. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)
Around Howard Beach it's sometimes referred to as "Baja," because it resembles a jungle, neighbors said. It's popular for fishermen, dirt bike riders, and kids who throw parties.
There have also recently been homeless encampments inside, many people complained during and after the meeting. Capt. Pete Culver from the Parks Police said they will do targeted enforcement at Gateway, focusing on encampments.
Whether the weeds can ever go away is unclear.
To cut the invasive reedy phragmites even once would cost $500,000, according to Jennifer Nersesian, the superintendent at Gateway.
But they can grow back, she added. Some suggested they pour asphalt over the whole thing — anything to stop the regrowth of the wild, tall reeds that are now a murder site.
Fr. Francis Colamaria, who spoke in favor of fixing the park at Vetrano's funeral on Saturday, said he disagreed with anyone suggesting the park disappear.
"It was a park that Karina loved," he said. "We need to make it safe. ... If we burn [the reeds] down, they will grow back more fierce and strong."
A friend of the Vetrano family who attended the town hall stood up to say he, too, was concerned about safety.
But he also wanted the park — a place he grew up exploring, just like Karina — to bring something positive. He said earlier Monday he walked through the weeds with Vetrano's father, Phil, to feed the animals there.
"When you run along it you can see the water," he said of the narrow running path, which is about as wide as a church pew.
"At the time of day [Karina] went in there, the sun was on the water. There are butterflies in there, plants in there, bunnies that run around. If you're in there you can see, it's beautiful."