What to Know
- The suspect, arrested in a now internationally-known attack on a tourist in Times Square last year, has a history of violence against women
- He was found mentally unfit to stand trial in the tourist case and the charges were dropped; now he's back on the streets
- One woman told the I-Team Jermaine Himmelstein, holding the infamous sign, threatened her in Union Square this week and followed her
The notorious "free hugs" sign-wielding man arrested in an attack on a Times Square tourist last year that became international news is allegedly harassing women on the street once again, an I-Team investigation has found.
Jermaine Himmelstein was found mentally unfit to stand trial in the attack on a 22-year-old Canadian woman in the Crossroads of the World last May, prosecutors say, and the case against him was dismissed. Prior to that, he'd been arrested at least six times for allegedly striking or harassing women, and, according to one disturbed woman in Union Square, he's at it again.
The woman told NBC 4 New York this week that the 25-year-old Himmelstein was carrying his now infamous "free hugs" sign "and all of a sudden he started coming after us."
The woman, who was crying as she relayed the story, said Himmelstein said she "had a problem with him and that he was going to beat the bleep out of us."
Himmelstein admitted following the woman several blocks and cursing at her, but he said it was just a threat.
"I was about to commit a crime, but I didn't do it because I was just harassing, making a threat to make everything better," Himmelstein told NBC 4 New York. "I don't want to commit a crime. I'm afraid I will, but I didn't want to commit."
Himmelstein's record of violence against women dates back to at least 2013. Some of the arrests involved allegations he punched women, in some cases for refusing to give him hugs.
In one attack in Washington Square Park, he allegedly told the victim, "you're pissing me off, and I assault people when I'm mad." In a subway attack last year, the threat was, "You will respect me when I knock you out."
At the time of his May 2016 arrest, Himmelstein shrugged off the charges, telling reporters he was "aggressively asking for tips." The punched tourist was left with a black eye, cuts and bruises, but was otherwise physically OK.
Himmelstein spent six months at Rikers during the ensuing investigation, but city officials declined to say if he received mental health treatment there.
He told NBC 4 New York this week he is now getting "a little bit of help -- like, um, a hospital to keep my medication on me and I'm doing good."
Himmelstein's parents, who live in East Harlem, have long contended their son has autism. His mother told the I-Team recently that while her son does take medication, he is currently out of it -- and when he goes off his meds, he returns to the "free hugs" routine that has kept him on cops' radar for years.
Himmelstein says he wants to stay on the path to reform.
"I just don't want to lay hands on nobody," he said. "I know I've been doing good for a while. I just don't want to commit no more crimes again."
But the woman who said he approached her in Union Square says he's already committed another crime.
"It's just not OK to follow people and yell at them and threaten them in public," she said. "It's not OK and we're very scared."
The woman filed a complaint with police after the confrontation with Himmelstein. The NYPD said that, due to the nature of the incident, he couldn't be arrested until officers witness him do it again.