Published September 15, 2012
The man accused of raping an elderly woman in New York's Central Park frightened people for years in his tiny West Virginia hometown, where a neighbor says residents were so terrified after his release from prison last year they bought guns to protect themselves.
Authorities say David Albert Mitchell has been in and out of prison since he was 18. He was arrested twice on charges of raping elderly women, suspected but not charged in the murder of one female neighbor and acquitted of killing another. Court records and prosecutors describe a man who drank heavily, was quick to threaten violence, never earned a high school diploma and may have been mentally ill.
Mitchell, 42, served eight years in a Virginia prison for the 2003 abduction of an ex-girlfriend and got out last year. Records show he violated probation three times, then apparently fled to New York, where police say he attacked a 73-year-old birdwatcher in Central Park near a memorial to peace-loving John Lennon.
Back in Jenkinjones, a hard-luck coalfields town of fewer than 300, a man well-acquainted with both Mitchell and some of his alleged victims said it's best if New York locks him up for good. He said when word spread of Mitchell's release from prison last year, people started buying guns to protect themselves because he had terrorized people in the town and preyed on elderly women for years.
"They ain't gonna trust him down here again. They're gonna end up killing him," said 45-year-old Wayne Mitchell, no relation to the suspect. "To be honest with you, he needs to be put away for life."
Jenkinjones is an isolated, unincorporated town in McDowell County, an economically desperate part of the struggling West Virginia coalfields. More than a third of the population lives in poverty, with median incomes less than half the U.S. average.
People have been fleeing McDowell for decades as the once-thriving coal industry died, and the population plummeted nearly 19 percent in the past decade. Drug abuse is rampant, schools and students are struggling, and it's historically been ranked among the nation's unhealthiest counties.
It's also just miles from the Virginia line, a location that helped Mitchell build a criminal resume in both states.
His first felony arrest was in 1989, when he was accused of killing 86-year-old Annie Parks of Jenkinjones.
Although Mitchell was acquitted in that case, he was arrested again a few months later, charged with raping another Jenkinjones resident who was in her 70s and stealing her gun.
Prosecutors dropped the sexual assault charge in that case under a plea bargain, Sid Bell, then Mitchell's attorney and now the county prosecutor, told The Charleston Gazette.
Mitchell escaped for two days while serving that sentence, West Virginia Division of Corrections spokeswoman Susan Harding said, and was then convicted of the escape.
He was released from the Mount Olive Correctional Center in February 2000, Harding said, but incarcerated again in December 2000 on a grand larceny charge. He finished that sentence in 2001.
About a year later, 54-year-old Barbara Flake went missing from Jenkinjones, and some suspected Mitchell. When Flake's skull turned up two years later, ex-girlfriend Saretta Mitchell went to police with a shocking claim: David Mitchell had confessed to the killing.
"In a social setting, when there's alcohol involved, he will tell you anything," she told The Associated Press. "He bragged to me and some of our friends at different times that he had murdered two people."
Saretta Mitchell declined to elaborate on her relationship with the rape suspect, saying she fears for her safety and that of her children.
State Police Sgt. C.F. Kane said investigators considered David Mitchell a person of interest in Flake's death, but they lacked evidence to charge him. They reached out to authorities in New York on Friday to find out if Mitchell has said anything about the 2002 slaying.
Wayne Mitchell said Flake was a sweet, generous woman who cleaned houses for a living and never bothered anyone.
"If you asked her for $5, she'd give you $10 -- if she had $10," he said. "She was just like your own mother."
About a year after Flake disappeared, David Mitchell was charged in Virginia with kidnapping his ex-girlfriend. The indictment says he stole a vehicle and used it to abduct Saretta Mitchell, and that he drove drunk while evading police.
"It was a scary incident," said Tazewell County Prosecutor Dennis H. Lee, "and thank God he was stopped before doing whatever he intended to do with her."
Although he'd been arrested many times in Virginia, the abduction was the case that sent him to prison for the first time there. He served eight years at Red Onion State Prison, a maximum-security facility reserved for the worst of the worst offenders.
When he got out, he was placed in a halfway house in suburban Richmond and initially met the conditions required of him, according to a probation report filed in Tazewell County Circuit Court.
Mitchell worked with a tutor and was trying to obtain his GED. He was passing random drug-screening tests. Lee said some records that haven't been made public indicate Mitchell may have schizophrenia.
But a month into the halfway house stay, Mitchell claimed he was robbed of $125 while working a construction job, "became very irate and threatened to kill everyone," the probation report said.
Mitchell agreed to a psychological evaluation but was thrown out of the halfway house over fears about his mental state.
He went back to prison for probation violations last October but failed to report to his probation officer when he was once again released.
"He just dropped off the grid," Lee said.
Authorities believed he might have been living in a tent in West Virginia. Then came word of the rape in Central Park.
Police there say he raped a birdwatcher who told police that she had taken a photo of Mitchell fondling himself days before the attack. She said Mitchell tried to take the camera away from her and demanded she delete the image. Then, on Wednesday, he attacked her in a wooded area near the busy Strawberry Fields section of Central Park, she told investigators.
He was also charged with threatening a man with a knife last month 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."
Mitchell was arraigned Friday on charges of first-degree rape, robbery, assault and other charges, and ordered held without bail. A call to his attorney at arraignment was not returned. Mitchell said nothing as he was led from the special victims unit to face charges in court Friday, but he spat at reporters gathered there.
Saretta Mitchell said she's not surprised by the latest accusation, but neither she nor his brothers want to talk about Mitchell.
"We want something to be done so he doesn't hurt anyone else," she said, "but he's done enough damage to the family already."