NEW YORK (AP) — A heavily tattooed 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.
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, New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said.
Investigators believe Mitchell was the man shown in footage from police security cameras leaving the park with the woman’s backpack. Browne said Mitchell had some of the woman’s belongings, including photo memory cards, on him when he was picked up.
Mitchell was arraigned early Friday on charges of first-degree rape, robbery, assault and other charges and ordered held without bail, prosecutors said. The name of his attorney was not immediately available.
Earlier, Mitchell said nothing as he was led from the special victims unit to face charges in court, but he spat at reporters gathered there. He also was facing charges 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.”
Relatives in Virginia, reached by phone, said Mitchell — who has tattoos of the grim reaper, castles, Nordic warriors and dragons all over his body — was a heavy drinker who had spent most of his life in and out of jail. They said they weren’t surprised by his latest brush with the law.
A sister-in-law and onetime girlfriend said he had been arrested in 2003 after trying to sexually assault her and dragging her out of her home in a drunken rage. Records show he was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to an abduction charge.
His trouble “was always sexually driven,” Saretta Mitchell told The Associated Press. “He was a sick individual as far as sex goes. … I was just a dumb, naive person to get involved with him.”
Mitchell’s extensive criminal record in Virginia and West Virginia included a 1989 arrest on murder and rape charges. He was acquitted at trial.
The last time Mitchell was seen in Virginia was at the beginning of August, his relatives said.
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 a man she photographed fondling himself about nine days ago in a 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. It’s unclear how long he had been in New York.
In an interview with the New York Post 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.”
Although the 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, an investment banker was found after being attacked while jogging. 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 a memoir.
Meili said her “heart was just aching” when she saw headlines about the birdwatcher’s attack.
“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.
Associated Press writer Kiley Armstrong contributed to this report.