UPPER WEST SIDE — A man punched, robbed and sexually assaulted a 74-year-old birdwatcher in Central Park Wednesday morning in retaliation for a picture she took of him masturbating there days earlier, police sources and witnesses said.
The horrific broad-daylight attack occurred just before noon in the Strawberry Fields section of the park near West 74th Street, one week after the man confronted the victim for snapping a picture of him pleasuring himself in the Ramble, police sources said.
The elderly woman refused to erase the photos and walked away. But on Wednesday morning, she was birdwatching on a path in Strawberry Fields when the man approached her again, police sources said.
"You remember me?" he asked her, according to police sources.
Then he punched her in the face, giving her a black eye, raped her, broke her watch, grabbed her backpack, camera and wallet and fled, witnesses and police sources said.
The victim was taken to Roosevelt Hospital with injuries to her face, sources and FDNY officials said. Her condition was not immediately clear.
Eric Ozawa, 34, was birdwatching in the park Wednesday morning when he spotted the victim sprawled across a path in Strawberry Fields, he said.
When he approached, she sat up and motioned for him. That's when he noticed that she had a black eye and her face was swollen and covered in mulch.
"She said she'd been raped, so I took out my phone and called 911," said Ozawa, a writing professor at New York University who lives in the Village.
The woman, who told Ozawa she was also in the park to birdwatch, said her attacker had smashed her head into the ground, Ozawa said.
"Obviously, something terrible had happened to her," Ozawa said.
On Wednesday evening, police took a suspect into custody who was wanted in another Central Park assault as well, sources said. The man resembled the suspect shown in surveillance footage near the site of Wednesday's attack, and he has an accent, but not the Russian accent the victim described, sources said.
Shortly after the victim was discovered Wednesday morning, dozens of police officers responded to and roped off the scene. Investigators focused on a wooded area in the northeast part of Strawberry Fields, but also shut down the area around the circular mosaic Imagine memorial, clearing out the crowds of tourists gathered there.
Alexander Stein, 48, who runs a picture booth nearby, said he saw a police officer near Strawberry Fields get the call about the crime and race over, followed moments later by more squad cars and an ambulance.
"Things happen here every day," Stein said. "But when police start running in every direction and ambulances come, you know something serious has happened."