Federal prosecutors on Monday filed hate crimes charges against the man accused of stabbing five people celebrating Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home in New York.
The criminal complaint, filed in Manhattan by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, said that Thomas was driven by “anti-Semitic sentiments.”
Authorities searched Thomas’ house and recovered handwritten journals expressing anti-Jewish viewpoints, according to the filing. They also recovered evidence from his car, including a machete, which appeared to have traces of dried blood, and a phone, which showed recent searches for phrases like “German Jewish Temples near me” and “Why did Hitler hate the Jews.”
The attack, which officials said began after 10 p.m. Saturday in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City, lasted less than two minutes and left five people wounded.
Within two hours of the assault, police tracked down and arrested Grafton Thomas, a 37-year-old resident of Greenwood Lake, based on the license plate number of a silver Nissan that witnesses had seen fleeing the scene.
In addition to the five-count federal indictment, Thomas was arraigned Sunday in state court on five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary during a court appearance Sunday. He pleaded not guilty, and his bail was set at $5 million.
Grafton Thomas’ family said Sunday through his defense lawyer that he had no known history of anti-Semitism and instead had “a long history of mental illness and hospitalizations.”
“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,” attorney Michael Sussman said in the statement, adding that he plans to seek “immediate mental health evaluation” for Thomas.
“We believe the actions of which he is accused, if committed by him, tragically reflect profound mental illness,” Sussman said, for which “Grafton has received episodic treatment before being released.”
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and a longtime immigration hawk, on Monday attempted to link the attack to unauthorized immigration.
“The attacker is the U.S. Citizen son of an illegal alien who got amnesty under the 1986 amnesty law for illegal immigrants. Apparently, American values did not take hold among this entire family, at least this one violent, and apparently bigoted, son,” Cuccinelli said in a now-deleted tweet Monday. Signed by President Ronald Reagan and passed on a bipartisan basis in Congress, the landmark 1986 law granted legal status to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country before 1982.
DHS, the domestic anti-terror agency where Cuccinelli is second-in-command, did not immediately respond to requests for information about his allegations. Hours later, Cuccinelli’s tweet was deleted.
Saturday’s attack in the New York City suburb of Monsey – the 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks in the state – was the most recent in a string of violence targeting local Jewish communities. Earlier this month, four people were fatally shot in what officials called an attack on a Jersey City kosher grocery store motivated by hatred of Jews and law enforcement.
As news of the latest assault spread, advocacy groups and local leaders called for concrete steps to address anti-Jewish attacks.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, labeled the ambush an act of domestic terrorism and directed the state’s Hate Crimes Task Force to investigate. He called for harsher punishments for mass attacks motivated by hatred of an identity group.
President Donald Trump and leaders in Congress were also united in condemning anti-Semitism after the attack, though some Democrats said Trump should take a more forceful public stance and blamed him for stoking bigotry.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump tweeted, “The anti-Semitic attack in Monsey, New York, on the 7th night of Hanukkah last night is horrific. We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.”
Saturday’s stabbing shook a county where a third of the population is Jewish and where officials said anti-Semitism has risen in recent years as increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews have made homes there. Last month, police said that they would increase patrols in Monsey in response to Jewish residents’ fears. National concerns have prompted similar vows of heightened security across the country.
“People in the Orthodox community are connecting dots and are genuinely frightened of the escalation,” said Rockland County legislator Aron Wieder.
Wieder said anti-Semitism began to rise in the area about a decade ago and has increased noticeably in the past five years. As more Orthodox Jews have moved into the community, other residents taunted them anonymously online, then etched swastikas onto the dirty window of a van and a “for sale” sign in front of a home. An ad for the county’s Republican Party accused Wieder of “plotting a takeover” that threatens “our way of life.”
Then, last month, a 30-year-old rabbi said two people approached him from behind on a secluded street in Monsey and beat him for several minutes. Police Chief Brad Weidel has said there is no evidence that the man was targeted for his religion, but concerns flared up in the Orthodox community.
According to Monday’s federal complaint, when the attacker entered the rabbi’s house dozens of congregants were inside celebrating the end of Shabbat and the seventh night of Hanukkah, lighting candles and reciting prayers. He closed the door behind him and said, “No one is leaving.”
He unsheathed a machete, described by witnesses as a sword nearly the size of a broomstick, and started slashing at random, moving through the entryway, then into the dining room and eventually toward the kitchen, where dozens of people – from children to senior citizens – were trying to flee through a back door.
Attendee Joseph Gluck eventually hit the attacker in the head with a small coffee table from the entryway. Both men moved outside, and Gluck realized that the man was headed toward the synagogue, where congregants locked the doors after hearing the commotion at the rabbi’s house. Gluck screamed warnings, then watched as the man tried a second door.
The attacker fled to a car and sped away. Authorities and witnesses said Gluck was able to catch the license plate number, the critical information that allowed authorities to catch the suspect in Harlem around midnight – covered in blood and smelling of bleach, prosecutors said, according to The Associated Press.
Yisroel Kraus, a 26-year-old teacher who was celebrating Hanukkah at the rabbi’s home with his family, said it was lucky that people had already started to filter out for the night.
“If he had come 10 minutes earlier, the place would have been packed,” said Kraus. “No way to move. No way to run. It was a miracle. It was a Hanukkah miracle.”