New York

Woman Says Notorious ‘Free Hugs' Man Punched Her in Union Square

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
  • A woman said Jermaine Himmelstein, holding the infamous sign, punched her in Union Square this weekend

A woman says the infamous “free hugs” sign-wielding man, who has been arrested at least seven times for allegedly striking or harassing women in the city, charged at her and punched her in the face.

The woman says she was in Union Square with two female friends Saturday afternoon when the “free hugs” man approached them and asked for a hug.

She declined the offer, saying, “I don’t want to be hugged,” but he continued by asking to shake her hand, a gesture she says also declined. “I’m a germaphobe,” she says she told him.

The man replied by asking if the three women respected his work, according to the woman, who said she was trying to be as polite as possible and suspected he suffered from mental illness. She says she and her friends walked away to take a photo next to a statue.

As the three women were looking at one of the photos, she says the “free hugs” man charged at her and punched her in the face, knocking her glasses off and causing her to drop her phone.

She says the man ran away before eventually returning and charging at her again. He was stopped by onlookers before he was able to make contact and ran off once again, she said.

She says she eventually found the man with police officers, and that he was arrested after she identified him as her attacker.

The “free hugs” man, whose name is Jermaine Himmelstein, was arrested in an attack on a 22-year-old Canadian tourist in Times Square last year, a story that became international news. He was found mentally unfit to stand trial and the case against him was dismissed.

An I-Team investigation earlier this year found him allegedly harassing women in Union Square again. At the time, a woman told NBC 4 New York that the 25-year-old Himmelstein was carrying his "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.

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.

Earlier this year, he told NBC 4 New York 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 previously told the I-Team that while her son does take medication, he is currently off 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.

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