Woman Punched for Refusing to Tip Times Square ‘Hugger’: Police

Investigators said the suspect has a long history of similar arrests dating back to 2013

In a violent example of false advertising, a man in Times Square offering "free hugs" is accused of punching a Canadian woman who refused to give him a tip.

The 22-year-old woman, an Ottawa resident, had her picture taken with the man, who was holding a "free hugs" sign, at about 10:40 a.m. Thursday, police said.

The man, identified as Jermaine Himmselstein, demanded a tip and she refused. He then slugged her in the face and ran away, according to police. The woman was able to show police the picture of the hugger, who was taken into custody.

"I was aggressively asking for tips," he told reporters while being escorted out of a police station after his arrest. Himmelstein did not deny hitting the woman.

The woman suffered blackened eyes and cuts and bruises, investigators said. She was taken to a local hospital for evaluation.

Investigators said Himmselstein has a long history of similar arrests dating back to 2013 and has targeted women in the past.

The most recent incident happened April 29, when he allegedly assaulted a woman waiting for the train at the 49th Street N/R subway station, reportedly screaming, "You will respect me when I knock you out," then running from the scene. He was charged in that incident after his arrest Thursday in the Times Square assault. 

Before that, Himmselstein was arrested April 17 on a criminal mischief charge, accused of assaulting a 25-year-old woman. 

In April 2013, Himmelstein threw a can of soda at a 20-year-old woman in Washington Square Park and threw water on her when she repeatedly refused his offers to hug her, according to police.

Himmelstein was arrested two more times later that month, once for allegedly sending threatening text messages, and the other in connection with another assault on a woman who allegedly refused his hugs in Washington Square Park. In that case, he allegedly told the victim, "You're pissing me off, and I assault people when I'm mad." 

In August 2015, he allegedly followed a 26-year-old woman and struck her in the back of the head near University Place and 13th Street, police said.

Then in October 2015, he punched a woman in the face, knocking her to the ground in midtown, police said.

A 2013 New York Times article documenting the Washington Square Park incidents cited Himmelstein's parents, who said he had autism. His mother said at the time she had no idea how he came to the idea of offering free hugs, and that "Jermaine comes from a home where we give him hugs."

A Brooklyn woman contacted NBC 4 New York Thursday to say she watched "the Free Hugs guy" punch a woman on the Coney Island boardwalk last April.

Lemonia Sitaras said the man, whom she believes is Himmelstein, punched a woman who did not tip him. Sitaras rushed to the woman's aid until police arrived. 

"It was all swollen, her face," she said. 

She said by the time police officers arrived the man had gotten away. 

For Sitaras, it's obvious he needs more than hugs. 

"He needs help, he's hurting people," said Sitaras.

It's not clear if Himmelstein was convicted on any of the charges since 2013. A message seeking information on whether he ever served jail time in the cases  was left with the Department of Corrections. 

Information on an attorneyf or Himmelstein was not immediately available.

Himmelstein likely would have been subject to a city law passed earlier this year regulating costumed characters, desnudas and other street performers in the Crossroads of the World and other public spaces. The regulation is expected to go into effect this summer.

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