POLITICS

Man Accused Of Hanukkah Stabbings Charged With Federal Hate Crimes

Prosecutors have charged Grafton E. Thomas with five counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs for an attack on an Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey.

MONSEY, N.Y. (AP) — A handwritten journal containing references to Jews and anti-Semitism were found in the home of a man charged with federal hate crimes Monday in the stabbing of five people celebrating Hanukkah in a rabbi’s house north of New York City, authorities said.

Grafton E. Thomas, 37, was expected to appear in federal court in White Plains to face five counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon and causing injuries.

The attack on the seventh night of Hanukkah occurred amid a series of violent attacks targeting Jews in the region that have led to increased security, particularly around religious gatherings.

Grafton E. Thomas leaves the Ramapo Town Hall in Airmont, New York after being arrested on December 29, 2019. 
Grafton E. Thomas leaves the Ramapo Town Hall in Airmont, New York after being arrested on December 29, 2019. 

A criminal complaint said law enforcement agents recovered the journals from his Greenwood Lake, N.Y., residence that included comments such as questioning “why ppl mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide” and a page with drawings of a Star of David and a Swastika.

Internet searches on a phone recovered from his car included repeated searches for “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” as well as “German Jewish Temples near me” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America,” the complaint said.

On Dec. 28, the phone’s internet browser was used to access an article titled: “New York City Increases Police Presence in Jewish Neighborhoods After Possible Anti-Semitic Attacks. Here’s What To Know,” the complaint said.

Thomas’ family said he was raised to embrace tolerance but has a history of mental illness.

“Grafton Thomas has a long history of mental illness and hospitalizations. He has no history of like violent acts and no convictions for any crime,” his family said late Sunday in a statement issued by attorney Michael Sussman. “He has no known history of anti-Semitism and was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races. He is not a member of any hate groups.”

“We believe the actions of which he is accused, if committed by him, tragically reflect profound mental illness,” the statement said.

Thomas was arrested within two hours of the Saturday night attack in Monsey. When police pulled his car over in Manhattan, he had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach but said “almost nothing” to the arresting officers, officials said.

The complaint said authorities recovered a machete under the front passenger seat, and it appeared to have traces of dried blood on it.

A knife recovered from the rear of the front passenger seat appeared to have dried blood and hair on it, the complaint said.

Members of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's community gather in front of the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on December 29, 2019 in
Members of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's community gather in front of the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on December 29, 2019 in Monsey, New York. 

Thomas’ aunt told The Associated Press that Thomas had a “germ phobia” and would obsessively wash his hands and feet with bleach, sometimes several times a day.

She said Thomas grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and “lived peacefully” among Jewish neighbors. She said Thomas had not been taking his medication and recently went missing for a week.

The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear she would lose her government job for speaking publicly.

“They’re making him look like this monster,” she said in a telephone interview. “My nephew is not a monster. He’s just sick. He just needs help.”

According to the complaint, Thomas, a scarf covering his face, entered the rabbi’s home, located next door to a synagogue, and said “no one is leaving.” Thomas then took out a machete and started stabbing and slashing people in a home packed with dozens of congregants, the complaint said.

The five victims suffered serious injuries, including a severed finger, slash wounds and deep lacerations, the complaint said. It added that at least one victim was in critical condition with a skull fracture. The rabbi’s son was also injured.

On Sunday, Thomas pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. He was detained on $5 million bail and refused to answer questions as he was escorted to a vehicle.

Thomas’ criminal history includes an arrest for assaulting a police horse, according to an official briefed on the investigation who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. A lawyer representing Thomas at the arraignment said he had no convictions.

The street in the rural village of Greenwood Lake, where Thomas lived with his mother, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Monsey, was blocked with police tape Sunday as FBI agents and police officers carried items from their home.

The attack was the latest in a string of violence targeting Jews in the region, including a Dec. 10 massacre at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey. Last month in Monsey, a man was stabbed while walking to a synagogue.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media outside the home of rabbi Chaim Rottenbergin Monsey, in New York on Decemb
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media outside the home of rabbi Chaim Rottenbergin Monsey, in New York on December 29, 2019 after a machete attack that took place earlier outside the rabbi's home during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah in Monsey, New York.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Saturday’s savagery was the 13th anti-Semitic attack in New York since Dec. 8.

According to the official briefed on the investigation, authorities do not believe Thomas is connected to recent anti-Semitic incidents in New York City.

Rockland County, which includes Monsey, announced Monday that a private firm has volunteered to operate armed security for certain synagogues. County Executive Ed Day denounced the attack during a press conference Monday.

Thomas’ mother sat on the front row at the event with a tissue in her hand but did not comment. Before the event started, she cried in the back of the room near her attorney.

In the statement released by Thomas’ lawyer, his family expressed its “deepest concern and prayers for those injured physically and otherwise deeply affected by the events of Saturday night. ... We thank those who rendered medical attention to each of those injured.”

Monsey, near the New Jersey state line about 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of New York City, is one of several Hudson Valley communities that has seen a rising population of Hasidic Jews in recent years.

At a celebration in Monsey on Sunday that was planned before the shooting, several members of the community stood guard armed with assault-style rifles. They refused to give their names when approached by an AP journalist, but they said they were there to defend their community.

People walk in front of a house where 5 people were stabbed at a Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, U.S., December 29.
People walk in front of a house where 5 people were stabbed at a Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, U.S., December 29. 2019. 

“The Jewish community is utterly terrified,” Evan Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey, said in a statement. “No one should have to live like this.”

President Donald Trump, a Republican, condemned the “horrific” attack, saying in a tweet Sunday that “We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.”

In New York City, the Rev. Al Sharpton appeared with Jewish and other faith leaders at his Harlem headquarters and said that he was disturbed and upset that several of the alleged perpetrators of recent attacks on Jews have been black.

“We cannot remain silent as we see a consistent pattern of attacks on people based on their faith and who they are,” Sharpton said. “You can’t fight hate against you if you aren’t willing to fight hate against everybody else.”

Mustian reported from New York. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in New York contributed to this report.

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