UPPER WEST SIDE — Police have arrested a homeless man they believe raped and robbed a 73-year-old birdwatcher near Strawberry Fields in Central Park in broad daylight Wednesday, sources said.
Two police officers picked up David Albert Mitchell, a 42-year-old homeless man from Virginia, who resembled the grainy photo of the suspect about 7:20 p.m. Wednesday, after spotting him on the street at 77th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, sources said. Mitchell has an accent, but not the Russian accent the victim described.
After the victim picked Mitchell out of a lineup on Thursday, police charged him with predatory sex act, robbery, assault rape and criminal possession of stolen property, sources said.
He was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court early Friday.
Mitchell is accused of attacking the birdwatching victim in retaliation for her accidentally taking a picture of him masturbating in the Ramble one week earlier, police said.
"You remember me?" he allegedly told her Wednesday afternoon.
That's when Mitchell jumped her from behind, choked her and pounded her head into the ground before raping her on a wooded path, according to the criminal complaint against him.
He also allegedly stole her backpack, camera and wallet during the attack, sources said.
Mitchell was also charged Thursday with menacing for a separate Aug. 20 incident in which police said he was smoking marijuana when he got into an argument with another man in Strawberry Fields.
The victim told police Mitchell pulled out a large knife and said, "I have no problem stabbing you as many times as I want and making [the Imagine circle in Strawberry Fields] full of blood."
Mitchell has an extensive criminal record, starting with a 1989 arrest in West Virginia, when he was 18, for allegedly raping an 84-year-old woman and beating her to death, The Charleston Gazette reported. He was found not guilty the next year.
In 2003, Mitchell pleaded guilty to abduction charges in Tazewell County, Virginia, after police who stopped him for suspected drunk driving found a woman in the car who said Mitchell had kidnapped her, said Dennis Lee, commonwealth attorney in Tazewell County.
"It was a very aggravated circumstance," Lee said. "It was a horrible situation."
Mitchell served more than eight years in prison, and after he was released in 2011 he served another two stints in jail for parole violations including drinking alcohol at a halfway house, Lee said. He was wanted for arrest for failing to check in with his parole officer when he appeared in New York, Lee said.
Other arrests include aggravated robbery in West Virginia in 1990, obstruction of justice in Virginia in 2001 and possession of a firearm in West Virginia in 2002, sources said.
Mitchell has been living in New York City for the past few months and had not been arrested until this week, police sources said.
One day after the horrific Central Park attack, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had assured the public that Central Park is safe and announced plans to offer a series of self-defense classes for seniors and young women.
On Thursday, Quinn said sexual assault is always shocking, but "when it happens during the day it has an added punch to the gut."
Quinn lauded the victim, an avid birdwatcher, for telling reporters she would return to the park.
"She knows Central Park is safe and she's not willing to yield an inch," Quinn said. "She will be back birdwatching and enjoying the park."
Upper West Side City Councilwoman Gale Brewer attributed the victim's courage to the "tenaciousness of birdwatchers."
The city will offer a self-defense class Oct. 7 at 2 p.m. in Central Park at 79th Street, which Quinn expects will draw hundreds of women.
Brewer and Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said they would also host self-defense classes for seniors at Goddard Riverside and Leonard Covelo senior centers.
Last week police investigated allegations that a woman was raped near Dinosaur Playground in Riverside Park.