Updated at 3:16 p.m. ET
Federal prosecutors in New York have filed hate crime charges against the man accused of carrying out a stabbing rampage north of New York City over the weekend that wounded five people as they celebrated Hanukkah.
According to the FBI, the suspect, Grafton E. Thomas, 37, appears to have been driven by anti-Semitism. The FBI cited journals written by Thomas and his Internet search history, which allegedly reveal a pattern of hateful, anti-Semitic leanings.
Defense lawyer Michael Sussman has objected to the government’s interpretation of Thomas’ journals, arguing that the entries amount to the ramblings of a “disturbed individual,” not proof that he harbored hatred against Jewish people.
Thomas, who is also facing separate attempted murder charges brought by state prosecutors, was charged on Monday with five federal counts, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and weapons charges.
According to the criminal complaint, Thomas entered a rabbi’s home in Monsey, N.Y., around 9:52 p.m. Saturday as dozens of congregants from a nearby synagogue celebrated the seventh night of Hanukkah by lighting candles and reciting prayers.
With his face obscured by a scarf, Thomas said, “No one is leaving.” Then he took out a machete and began stabbing and slashing people in the rabbi’s home, federal prosecutors wrote in the charging document.
Five people had serious injuries, including one victim who sustained a severed finger. Federal authorities say one victim is still in critical condition with a skull fracture.
Family members of those who survived the attack told NPR that some of the people at the house threw furniture, including a coffee table, at Thomas to thwart his attack.
Witnesses said he stumbled out of the rabbi’s home bloodied and attempted to enter a nearby synagogue, but it was locked. He then got in his car and drove away, though not before a witness took a photograph of his license plate number, allowing police to track him as he entered New York City. Thomas was apprehended in Harlem, where police confiscated a machete with what appeared to be traces of blood.
Federal authorities said Monday that a strong scent of bleach was coming from the car when he was pulled over. Officers said Thomas’ jacket and hands were covered in blood.
Federal agents obtained a warrant to search Thomas’ house and recovered an 18-inch Ozark Trail machete, a weapon separate from the one used in the attack.
Authorities also recovered journals written by Thomas, some of which appear to include anti-Semitic sentiments. The FBI found references to Adolf Hitler and “Nazi culture” on the same page that included the star of David and a swastika, according to the criminal complaint filed on Monday.
Investigators also searched Thomas’ phone and found an Internet history that included such searches as “Why did Hitler hate Jews,” “German Jewish Temples near me,” “Zionist Temples in Elizabeth, NJ” and “Zionist Temples in Staten Island.” He also searched for “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America,” the complaint states.
After the attacks, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the incident was an act of domestic terrorism, telling NPR, “When you try to commit mass murder based on race, color, creed, you try to instill fear. That is terrorism.”
Following the incident, Rockland County officials announced that an international security firm will provide armed guards for area synagogues.
“A gentle giant with mental illness”
Family and loved ones of Thomas are offering a vastly different picture of the man whose motivation for the attack was likely explained by severe mental delusions, according to his lawyer.
Thomas was class president at his high school in Queens, N.Y., and then joined the Marine Corps. According to his lawyer, he sustained unspecified injuries while in the military. Afterward, he held down a series of jobs before his mental health severely declined.
At the time of the attack, Thomas was being medicated for depression and psychosis, said his attorney, Sussman, who interviewed Thomas in jail on Monday.
“His explanations were not entirely coherent,” Sussman said.
The Rev. Wendy Paige, who is Thomas’ pastor, was stunned by news of his violent actions. To Paige, Thomas was always “a gentle giant with mental illness,” she said.
He is a vegan and a “germophobe” who incessantly washes his hands, Paige said.
“He’s very introverted,” she told reporters at a Monday news conference, adding, “Very simple.”
Asked what might have spurred Thomas’ alleged rampage, Sussman said perhaps hallucinations. “One might say demons,” he added.
He called Thomas’ journals “the ramblings of a disturbed individual, but there is no suggestion in any of those ramblings and pages of writing of an anti-Semitic motive.”
Thomas had 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,” the family of Thomas wrote in a statement.
Thomas was arraigned Sunday on state criminal charges. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. His is being held in a local jail on $5 million bail.
The stabbings come not long after another act of violence directed at Jews, on Dec. 10, when a gunman opened fire on a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J., in what investigators are calling a targeted attack.
Cuomo said Saturday’s attack was part of a pattern of “hatred exploding” across the United States. President Trump also condemned the attack as “horrific,” urging national unity to eradicate anti-Semitism.
According to Cuomo, Saturday’s knife rampage was the 13th anti-Semitic attack in New York since Dec. 8.
“We consider this a crisis,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told NPR. “There is a growing anti-Semitism problem in this whole country. It has taken a more and more violent form.”
In response to the attack in Monsey, city police patrols will be beefed up in communities that are predominantly Jewish, in addition to the installation of new security cameras and light towers, de Blasio said.
“We have made it a habit, when the Jewish community is attacked anywhere in the world, to reinforce key Jewish community locations in New York City, but we’re doing it now on a much bigger scale,” he said.