NEW YORK (AP) — Before the attack, there was a question: “Do you remember me?”
A 73-year-old birdwatcher who said she was raped in Central Park Wednesday told investigators that’s what the man who assaulted her asked, before he threw her to the ground.
The woman, who regularly visits the park, said she thinks the assailant was the same man she photographed masturbating about nine days ago in another, more isolated spot known as The Ramble, police said. She said he demanded she delete the image before they went their separate ways, and tried to grab her camera but didn’t succeed. Police said that initial encounter wasn’t reported.
On Wednesday, she told police she was attacked at about 11 a.m. in a wooded area near the park’s tranquil Strawberry Fields that serves as a memorial to John Lennon, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a news conference.
After sexually assaulting her, the man made off with her backpack that contained a camera, police said. He tried also to steal her watch but was unsuccessful.
Eric Ozawa, a college professor and birdwatcher, found the woman and called 911. He told reporters he noticed a pair of legs sticking out along the path but thought it was somebody sleeping. As he got closer, he realized it was a woman lying face down. Her face was badly swollen, she had a black eye and was covered in mulch, he said.
Still, she appeared “self-possessed and lucid,” he said.
The woman told Ozawa she had been mugged and raped, he said. He immediately called the police.
“It’s shocking that it could happen in the park in broad daylight,” he said. “That someone could rape somebody in her 70s.”
Investigators interviewed Ozawa on Wednesday, while other officers and detectives swarmed the scene in search of the suspect. Police blocked off much of the area near West 72nd Street and Central Park West as they hunted for a suspect described as a man in his 40s. Authorities later released surveillance images of the suspect who was wearing black pants, a black T-shirt and white sneakers. He was carrying a backpack that resembled the one stolen from the woman, and also wearing a second backpack.
Emily Loubaton, 29, of Brooklyn was in the park on a scavenger hunt that her company had organized.
“I think this is pretty disgusting, and so shocking it would happen on such a beautiful day in such a beautiful park,” she said.
Asked if she felt less safe in Central Park, she said: “I’d like to believe that New York City has turned the corner for the better. I mean, this isn’t the 70s. But it definitely makes you pause before you walk in.”
Strawberry Fields is one of Central Park’s busiest spots. It was named after one of the Beatles’ best-known songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It was officially dedicated in 1985, five years after Mark David Chapman fired five shots outside the Dakota apartment house on Dec. 8, 1980, killing Lennon.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.