Grafton Thomas is led from Ramapo Town Hall in Ramapo, N.Y. following his arraignment. Picture: Seth Harrison/The Journal News via AP
Grafton Thomas is led from Ramapo Town Hall in Ramapo, N.Y. following his arraignment. Picture: Seth Harrison/The Journal News via AP

Hanukkah stabbing suspect searched 'why did Hitler hate the Jews'

By Shayna Jacobs, Deanna Paul, Maria Sacchetti, Hannah Knowles Time of article published Dec 31, 2019

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White Plains - More than a month before he charged into Hanukkah celebrations with a machete, prosecutors say, Grafton Thomas used his cellphone to search the Internet: "Why did Hitler hate the Jews."

That query - entered three more times over the following weeks - was just one red flag authorities found when they combed Thomas' belongings, officials said. There were more online searches, for temples "near me." There were journals with the words "Nazi Culture" on the same page as a Swastika and a Star of David.

The discoveries detailed by an FBI agent would bring Thomas to court Monday on federal hate-crime charges, a day after he was charged with attempted murder in the stabbing that wounded five people at a rabbi's home in New York's Rockland County. The 38-year-old defendant answered routine questions, telling a judge he was "coherent," before shuffling away slowly, feet shackled, to be held without bail.

Thomas' family has said the suspect has "no known history of anti-Semitism" and attributed any responsibility in Saturday's rampage in the New York suburb of Monsey to "profound mental illness." But the federal criminal complaint points to Thomas' handwritten journals and online history as evidence that the man sought to target Jews in an assault that quickly renewed fears of rising anti-Semitic violence.

Thomas, a resident of Greenwood Lake, New York, did not enter a plea for the latest charges at his court appearance in White Plains, where he faces five counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon and causing injuries. He pleaded not guilty on Sunday to five state counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary.

Thomas' attorney in court Monday declined to comment.

Even before Monday's charges brought a potential motive into focus, many officials and community leaders had denounced anti-Semitism and expressed concern about a spate of attacks on Jewish residents. Saturday's stabbing was 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks in New York state, the governor said, calling the Monsey stabbing "domestic terrorism." Earlier this month, four people were fatally shot in what officials called a targeted attack on a Jersey City kosher grocery store.

The hate-crime charges were a welcome sign of accountability to Yossi Gestetner, who lives seven minutes from the rabbi's house and headed over the night of the stabbing. He doesn't think the anti-Semitism described in the complaint has heightened his community's fears, though - because "the concern that hate exists was already out there."

"People in the Orthodox Jewish community have been expressing concern for a very long time that there is a strain of hatred targeted toward them," said the co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. He said of Thomas: "We saw today . . . he chose Orthodox Jews."

Authorities found Thomas within hours of the attack, driving with blood on his clothes in a car that smelled of bleach.

The suspect's browser history showed queries related to Nazis, Jews and synagogues dating to at least Nov. 9, according to the complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. A day before the stabbing, the complaint says, Thomas accessed an article on New York's decision to ramp up police presence in multiple Jewish neighborhood amid fears of anti-Semitic violence.

Journals discovered in Thomas' home also include anti-Semitic statements, an FBI officer writes in the federal complaint. One page questions "why [people] mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide."

Another says that "Hebrew Israelites" have taken from "ebinoid Israelites," an apparent reference to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a movement that officials said the suspects in the Jersey City shooting expressed interest in. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have pointed to members' anti-Semitic beliefs, prosecutors note.

Thomas' family sought to dispel accusations of anti-Semitism in a statement released Sunday through a lawyer, saying he was not a member of any hate groups and "was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races."

The family pointed to Thomas' "long history of mental illness and hospitalizations," adding that attorney Michael Sussman plans to seek a mental health evaluation.

"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."

Sussman's office did not respond Monday to inquiries.

In federal court Monday, defense attorney Susanne Brody asked that Thomas get medical attention in jail, saying that he is on two medications and that she understands "there are issues with bipolar and schizophrenia."

Little more about the defendant's mental health was discussed as the defendant said he understood the proceedings and declared himself indigent and eligible for free counsel.

Brody said it's not clear whether the state's case against Thomas will proceed, and the Rockland County district attorney did not immediately clarify Monday.

Federal prosecutors said the hate-crime charges should send a "crystal-clear" message, as the filing drew approval from groups that had called for concrete steps to address anti-Jewish attacks.

"As alleged, Grafton Thomas targeted his victims in the midst of a religious ceremony, transforming a joyous Hanukkah celebration into a scene of carnage and pain," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement, calling the eighth day of Hanukkah and the new year moments "for renewed hope and resolve: To combat bigotry in all its forms - and to bring to justice the perpetrators of hate-fueled attacks."

Other officials have vowed action to prevent more violence.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who directed the state's Hate Crimes Task Force to investigate, is calling for harsher punishments for mass attacks motivated by hatred of an identity group. Officials in Rockland County said police would partner with private security to give area synagogues armed guards - a measure that community members say some congregations have already taken in recent months amid concerns about attacks across the country.

As most leaders focus on anti-Semitism, one federal official 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," Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and a longtime immigration hawk, said in a now-deleted tweet. 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-terrorism 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 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.

Concerns in the Orthodox community flared last month after a 30-year-old rabbi said two people approached him from behind on a secluded street in Monsey and beat him for several minutes - though Police Chief Brad Weidel has said there is no evidence that the man was targeted for his religion.

Then came Saturday attack as dozens celebrated the seventh night of Hanukkah inside the home of Hasidic Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg. Face covered with a scarf, the assailant told those gathered, "No one is leaving," according to Monday's federal complaint.

Witnesses say he unsheathed a machete, described by one person 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 people fled through a back door.

Attendee Joseph Gluck said he 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, officials say, but Gluck was able to write down the license plate number. Authorities caught the suspect in Harlem around midnight.

Authorities found Thomas with a machete and a knife, both showing what seemed to be traces of dried blood, Monday's federal complaint says.

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 when the attacker starting swinging at "everyone he could."

"If he had come 10 minutes earlier, the place would have been packed," Kraus said. "No way to move. No way to run. It was a miracle. It was a Hanukkah miracle."

The Washington Post

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