NEW YORK -- A man raped his 3-year-old niece about 25 feet from a highway during the rush hour Friday evening, police said, and a tow-truck operator who captured the man reported that dozens of people watched the attack without intervening.
A 6-foot-high metal fence separated the attacker from observers.
The suspect, Leroy Saunders, 29, was caught a few blocks away after allegedly assaulting the girl under a tree on a grassy knoll in Manhattan on the west side of Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive near 115th Street, the police said.
The tow-truck operator, Noel Sanchez, who was heading south on the FDR looking for breakdowns, said in an interview last night that the motorists watched as the assault took place.
He said some people were yelling at the man but doing nothing to get over the fence to stop the attack.
A police report on the incident mentioned their inaction, but it was unclear whether the account came solely from Mr. Sanchez.
Asked about the incident at a news conference, Mayor David N. Dinkins called the attack "a dastardly deed." He said all rape was horrible but to do it to a child was "unspeakable."
About the passing motorists, he said: "We have had in the recent past instances of persons in trouble where the community did come immediately to the rescue. So I would hope that this one incident, tragic as it is, would not be taken as the general reaction of New Yorkers."
In the interview, Mr. Sanchez, 22, said he was driving south on the roadway near 118th Street when he noticed that traffic had slowed sharply.
He said he thought at first that an accident had occurred.
But he said that as he passed 116th Street, he looked west, the direction in which other drivers were looking, and saw a man assaulting a girl.
Mr. Sanchez, who said that no one seemed to be taking action, related that he immediately pulled his truck over on the road's shoulder and called for help from other tow-truck drivers over his radio.
He also called his dispatcher to "get the police over here -- there's a guy raping a child."
Mr. Sanchez said the attacker jumped up when he saw the truck pull over and fled, the child in his arms, through the grounds of the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which borders the roadway at East 116th.
As the attacker headed toward First Avenue, Mr. Sanchez said that he backed up his truck to an entrance to the highway and drove through it down East 116th Street.
He said that he and another tow-truck driver grabbed the man at Second Avenue and that police arrived within minutes.
Over the weekend, Mr. Saunders was arraigned on a first-degree rape charge in Criminal Court in Manhattan.
He is being held without bail at the Rikers Island jail. A grand jury is expected to get the case tomorrow, said Gerald McKelvey, a spokesman for the Manhattan district attorney's office.
Yesterday, the girl's mother, Sandra Brown, who is Mr. Saunders' sister, said, "You just don't expect that from kin." But she declined to talk further about the case.
"I just want to go to my apartment to rest," she said. "I'm very upset."
After Mr. Saunders' arrest, the girl was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital Center at First Avenue and 97th Street. Aura Retamoso, a hospital spokeswomen, said yesterday that the child was released the same day but that she could provide no more information because of confidentiality regulations.