NEW YORK — A homeless man with a history of violence was arrested Thursday on charges he retaliated against a 73-year-old birdwatcher who took a compromising photo of him by brutally raping her in broad daylight in a normally serene part of Central Park, police said.
Three rookie police officers took David Albert Mitchell into custody on Wednesday night after spotting him walking on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where the woman said the attack occurred.
The woman picked the 42-year-old Mitchell out of a lineup on Thursday, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne.
Police believe Mitchell was the same man captured in footage from police security cameras leaving the park with the woman’s backpack. Browne said the suspect had some of the victim’s belongings, including photo memory cards, on him when he was picked up.
Mitchell was arrested on rape, predatory sex act and other charges. He said nothing as he was led from the special victims unit to face charges in court, but he spit at reporters gathered there. He also was facing separate charges that he threatened a man last month with a knife in the same area of the park.
He told the man, according to investigators: “I have no problem stabbing you as many times as I want and making this circle full of blood.”
He was being held pending an arraignment and no information was available on whether he had an attorney. The suspect had extensive criminal records in Virginia and West Virginia, police said. In one case in 1989, he was arrested on murder and rape charges but acquitted at trial. He also served about eight years in a separate abduction case.
A man who answered the phone at Mitchell’s last known address in Henrico, Va. said he didn’t know the suspect, who had tattoos of the grim reaper, castles, Nordic warriors and dragons inked all over his body.
The birdwatcher had told police she was attacked at around 11 a.m. Wednesday in a wooded area near Strawberry Fields, a spot that serves as a memorial to John Lennon and is one of Central Park’s busiest sections. The woman told investigators a man threw her to the ground and attacked her, then made off with a backpack that contained her camera.
She had also said she thought the assailant was the same man she photographed fondling himself about nine days ago in another, more isolated spot known as the Ramble. She said he demanded she delete the image and tried to grab her camera but didn’t succeed. Police said that initial encounter wasn’t reported.
Investigators said Mitchell was known as “Keith” in the park and had been haunting the Ramble and other locations extensively the past few months. It’s not clear how long he had been in New York.
In an interview with the New York Post in an interview published Thursday, the woman recounted how the man jumped on her back, pummeled her, grabbed her throat and threatened to cut her jugular when she screamed. She said she feels jittery but is mostly enraged.
“Kill him. Cut off his penis. That’s fine,” she said. “Cut off his feet, then hit him over the head. Then give him life in prison.”
Strawberry Fields is one of Central Park’s busiest spots. It was named after the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever” and was officially dedicated in 1985, five years after Mark David Chapman fired five shots outside the nearby Dakota apartment house on Dec. 8, 1980, killing Lennon.
Although the popular park is considered safe and there have been few reported crimes there in the past several years, there have been some headline-grabbing exceptions.
On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker was found after being attacked while jogging on April 19, 1989. She became known worldwide as “the Central Park jogger.”
She was in a coma for 12 days before beginning her near-miraculous recovery. The jogger, Trisha Meili, disclosed her identity in 2003 and published her memoir.
“My heart was just aching when I saw it in the headlines,” Meili told the The Associated Press in a phone interview on Thursday.
“I want to send loving thoughts of healing to this woman and let her know that thousands are thinking about her and sending prayers for her vibrant spirit … to move forward from this horrible violation,” she said.
Meili, who no longer lives in the New York City area, still jogs and is even back in Central Park from time to time.
“There are wonderful things that happen in that park, too,” she said.