Hanukkah stabbing suspect faces federal hate crime charges

Robert Pelaez
(Photo from the Island Now archives)

A 37-year-old man who pleaded not guilty to five charges of attempted murder now faces federal hate crime counts after seriously injuring five people during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, according to officials.

Officials said that Grafton Thomas of Greenwood Lake, roughly 22 miles north of the attack, was arrested in Harlem by NYPD officers on Saturday night.  Thomas was charged with five counts of second-degree intentional attempted murder and a count of second-degree burglary and held on $5 million bail by Judge Rhoda Schoenberger, according to officials.

A federal complaint was submitted in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by FBI Special Agent Julie Brown on Monday that highlights Thomas’ actions.

The six-page complaint charges Thomas with five counts of obstructing the free exercise of a religious belief involving an attempt to kill through the use of a dangerous weapon, resulting in bodily injury to the victims.  The victims, five Orthodox Jews, were identified in the complaint by their initials.

The complaint described Thomas entering the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg of Rockland County around 10 p.m. on Saturday.  Dozens of congregants from a local synagogue were inside the home celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah by reciting prayers and lighting candles, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that Thomas entered the home, took out an 18-inch Ozark machete and began stabbing and slashing people.  Injuries sustained by the five victims included a severed finger, slash wounds, deep lacerations and a skull fracture, according to the complaint.

Thomas reportedly fled the house in his car and drove across the George Washington Bridge, where the car’s license plate was monitored in the NYPD plate-reading database.  At approximately 11:49 p.m., NYPD officers found Thomas’ car in Manhattan and placed him under arrest, according to the complaint.

After finding the blood-stained machete in Thomas’ car, further investigation by officials led them to find journals and web searches that were of concern.

“Based on my training and experience, it appears that several of the pages in the journals express anti-Semitic sentiments,” Brown said in the complaint.

References to Adolf Hitler, Nazi culture and drawings of a Star of David and a swastika were all included in Brown’s findings, according to the complaint.

Phone searches were also conducted from Thomas’ internet browser, revealing inquiry about Zionist and German Jewish temple locations in the area. The search, “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” was a frequently searched question.

Michael Sussman, Thomas’ attorney, said his client’s family stated he has been suffering from mental illness for a long time, and asked for a mental health examination to be conducted.

“I hope that both sides can agree on a time period for the examination of this gentleman so that his true psychiatric nature can be discerned and that we can proceed accordingly,” Sussman said.

Thomas’ family released a statement on Sunday saying: “Grafton Thomas has a long history of mental illness and hospitalizations. He has no history of violent acts and no convictions for any crime. 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.”

Local and state officials have been vocal in the midst of a number of anti-Semitic attacks that have plagued New York over the past week alone.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that this was “a blatant act of domestic terrorism that sought to inflict violence, incite hate and generate fear.” 

“These anti-Semitic attacks are borne out of ignorance and hatred and will not be tolerated in our state,” Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso (D-Port Washington) said. “It is my fervent hope that together as a community we can work together to rise above such bigotry.”

Officials said that Thomas is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 13.

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