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Friends And Family Hold Vigil For Howard Beach Jogger As Police Search For Killer

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The New York City medical examiner said a 30-year-old jogger whose body was found in marsh land near a bike path in Queens was strangled as police believe she was sexually assaulted.

Karina Vetrano's body was discovered by her father in a grassy area around 161st Avenue and 78th Street in Howard Beach, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said. CBS2's Hazel Sanchez reported Vetrano was killed just blocks from her home.

She was reported missing after going for a jog in Gateway National Park near 165th Avenue, around 5 p.m. Tuesday.

She normally ran the route with her father, a retired firefighter, but his back was bothering him so he stayed home, 1010 WINS' Carol D'Auria reported.

"He asked her not to run this path. Not without him," Boyce said.

Boyce said she had been texting a friend, but then the texts stopped and multiple calls from her dad went unanswered.

"At some point after that, her father began to get worried -- where she was, she didn't return home," Boyce said. "He called a police chief who lives nearby who then called 911."

Boyce said Vetrano's father then aided investigators in the search, tracing their usual jogging route. Investigators said they then pinged her cell phone to a marshy area.

"The father then went into the woods and then found the body with our detectives right after him," he said. "We found her face down in the ground."

Boyce said Vetrano was dragged 15 feet off the path, WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reported.

Investigators said there was evidence she had been strangled and possibly sexually assaulted. Police said she was found with scrapes on her legs and her sports bra and shorts pulled down.

On Wednesday night, police said that she was clutching grass in one of her hands -- an indication that she had been dragged -- and that one of her sneakers and her headphones were missing from the crime scene.

"Anything right now would be important," NYPD Deputy Chief Michael Kemper said. "Any sort of evidence that appears to be out of the ordinary, that's what they're gonna look for."

Authorities aren't sure if the crime was random or if she was targeted.

"My heart goes out to him," outgoing Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said about Vetrano's father. "I just can't even begin to grasp that."

As CBS2's Valerie Castro reported, reward posters spelled out the tragic news about Vetrano's death, but to those who knew her she was more than just a face on a flier.

"This girl was a beautiful girl in the prime of her life, taken down by an animal," family friend DJ Skribble said. "The fact that this happened literally in my backyard. I live around the corner from them, it just doesn't make any kind of sense."

Family friends and nearby residents were shocked by the news.

"Everyone is devastated," friend Tommy Ryan told CBS2's Janelle Burrell. "I got a million calls last night. Everyone's upset. It's just a big shock."

"The father was here and he walked out and looked destroyed," said resident John Cheperak.

"She's was a sweetheart, it's a sin what happened," another resident told 1010 WINS' John Montone.

A single sunflower now sits near the crime scene in memory of Vetrano, who had a large following on social media, Burrell reported. She worked at a local catering hall and as a speech pathologist, earning a master's degree from Saint John's University last May.

"She was a spontaneous girl, a great girl," said friend Joe Dipierro. "Tons of friends. Lit up the room when she walked in. She really was a great girl."

Trash found near the scene is being tested for evidence. Residents say the area is a haven for the homeless and illegal activities.

As friends and family begin to realize the loss, many say it's the Howard Beach community that will help them get through the pain. Community members gathered outside the Vetro Restaurant and Lounge, where Vetrano worked, Wednesday night to attend a vigil and pay their respects.

"I hope they just catch the animal that did it, that's all I care about right now," DJ Skribble said.

The investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information is asked to call police.

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