NEW YORK -- A man with a history of violence who had been known to haunt parts of Central Park was arraigned early Friday on charges that he beat and raped a 73-year-old birdwatcher near Strawberry Fields, one of the park’s most visited areas, in broad daylight earlier in the week.
The attack stunned the city for its brazenness -- it occurred shortly before noon on a warm, sunny day -- and for the fact that it happened so close to a spot that draws crowds of visitors daily. Strawberry Fields, on the western edge of the park, is a memorial to former Beatle John Lennon, who lived in an apartment building nearby.
Police say David Albert Mitchell, 42, who is homeless, attacked the woman Wednesday. She was discovered by a passer-by lying on the ground. On Thursday she picked Mitchell out of a lineup after police walking near the park recognized him from surveillance video captured shortly after the attack.
After his arrest, a defiant Mitchell spat at journalists and said, “I attacked no one.”
The woman told local media she believed she was attacked in retaliation for having snapped a photograph of Mitchell exposing himself in another area of the park about two weeks ago. She said she goes regularly to the park to look for birds and photograph them.
The incident marked a rare case of a violent crime in a park now considered generally safe, but which decades ago was seen as menacing even during daylight hours, a reputation fueled by attacks such as the 1989 beating and gang rape of a woman who became known as the Central Park Jogger. She was beaten into a coma during the assault but survived.
Since then, police say, the Central Park Precinct’s serious crime rate has dropped almost 73%. In 1990, there were three murders, 10 rapes and 152 robberies reported in the park. Last year, there were no murders, two rapes and 18 robberies, according to police statistics. This year, before this week’s reported attack, there had been no rapes or murders in the park, and seven robberies.
Mitchell was ordered held without bail on rape, robbery, assault and other charges.
Police say he was charged in West Virginia in 1989 in the sexual assault and slaying of an elderly woman, but was acquitted at trial. He subsequently spent time in prison on other charges ranging from robbery to kidnapping. Police said they did not know how long Mitchell had been in New York but that other homeless people who frequent the park had complained in recent months of his menacing behavior.
The Associated Press quoted relatives of Mitchell in Virginia as saying they had not seen him there since August.