New York mass stabbing suspect faces federal hate crime charges

New York mass stabbing suspect faces federal hate crime charges

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Investigators carry boxes to a car on Sunday from the home of the mother of Grafton Thomas, where Thomas was said to reside, in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. (Julius Constantine Motal/The Associated Press)

Federal criminal charges were filed Monday in New York against a man who authorities say invaded a rabbi's home and stabbed five people during a Hanukkah celebration, leaving one person critically injured.

Grafton E. Thomas, 37, was held without bail after appearing in federal court in White Plains, N.Y., on five counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon and causing injuries in the Saturday attack.

The bearded Thomas, his ankles shackled, shuffled into the courtroom in a prison jumpsuit, telling a judge who asked him if his head was clear that he was "not clear at all" and needed sleep. But he added: "I am coherent."

His court-appointed attorney, Susanne Brody, said Thomas has issues with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

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

A criminal complaint said Thomas, a scarf covering his face, entered the rabbi's home, located next door to a synagogue, and said "no one is leaving."

It said Thomas then took out a machete and started stabbing and slashing people in a home packed with dozens of congregants from the synagogue who were celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah.

Ramapo, N.Y., police officers escort Grafton Thomas from Ramapo Town Hall to a police vehicle on Sunday. Thomas is accused of stabbing multiple people as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi's home in the Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City. (Julius Constantine Motal/The Associated Press)

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.

Handwritten journals containing references to Jews and anti-Semitism were found in the suspect's home, authorities said in the complaint, and in internet searches on a phone recovered from his car.

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

Defence attorney Michael Sussman told reporters he visited Thomas' home and found stacks of notes he described as "the ramblings of a disturbed individual" but nothing to point to an "anti-Semitic motive" or suggest Thomas "intentionally targeted" the rabbi's home.

"My impression from speaking with him is that he needs serious psychiatric evaluation," Sussman said. "His explanations were not terribly coherent."

Kim Thomas, centre, mother of Grafton Thomas, the man accused of stabbing multiple people at a Hanukkah celebration, is comforted by Rev. Wendy Paige at a news conference in New City, N.Y., on Monday. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Thomas's family said he was raised to embrace tolerance but has a long history of mental illness, including multiple hospitalizations.

"He has no history of like violent acts and no convictions for any crime," his family said in a statement. "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."

In a release, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said Thomas "targeted his victims in the midst of a religious ceremony, transforming a joyous Hanukkah celebration into a scene of carnage and pain."

William F. Sweeney Jr., head of New York's FBI office, said the possible life prison sentence that the federal charges carry "for this type of attack are severe and justified."

Police made arrest within 2 hours

Thomas served in the Marines and was president of his class at a high school in Queens, Sussman said. He attended William Paterson University between 2005 and 2007, the university confirmed, where he played football as a walk-on running back.

Thomas's family said his mental health deteriorated over the years. He would hear voices and have trouble completing sentences at times, Sussman said.

In court papers filed in a 2013 eviction case in Utah, Thomas said he suffered from schizophrenia, depression and anxiety and his "conditions are spontaneous and untamed."

Thomas was arrested within two hours of the attack Saturday night in Monsey, N.Y. The suspect had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach but said "almost nothing" when officers stopped him, officials said.

U.S. President Donald Trump 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."

Scouring digital evidence

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.

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

On Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced city measures to prevent hate crimes and anti-Semitic attacks, including increased police patrols in neighbourhoods with large Jewish communities and the creation of multi-faith neighbourhood safety coalitions.

He also announced that "hate crime awareness programming" will be added to the curriculum of middle and high schools in Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park, which is to begin next month. The curriculum resources will be available to schools city-wide, he said. 

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

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said it wants the FBI to create a special task force.

Monsey, near the New Jersey state line about 55 kilometres 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 attack, 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.

"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."

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




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