NEW CITY – Grafton Thomas will be confined to a mental health facility after a Rockland judge on Wednesday found him incompetent to stand trial on murder and attempted murder charges stemming from a 2019 Hanukkah machete attack on Hasidic Jews in Ramapo.
Judge Kevin Russo's decision mirrors a federal judge's finding that Thomas lacks the capacity to understand the separate federal charges against him and aid in his own defense.
Russo's ruling came after unsealing a murder-two indictment charge against Thomas for killing 72-year-old Josef Neumann, as a result of the Forshay Road home invasion on Dec. 28, 2019. Neumann died months later after being comatose with head injuries.
Psychiatric reports cite mental illness
Russo cited the Rockland psychiatric reports on Thomas and U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel's acceptance of psychiatric evaluations in April 2020 on Thomas.
Thomas had been held in a federal mental-health facility in Missouri since 2020, until recently being returned to New York for confinement. His Orange County attorney, Michael Sussman, argued Thomas should be held in a New York state facility in Orange, near his mother and family.
"Given the tragic situation, this is the right determination," Sussman said outside Russo's courtroom at the Rockland County Courthouse. "He needs to be in a facility where he can get proper care and treatment. We want him close to his mother's home."
Thomas can become eligible for trial at any time he's found competent by doctors but will be held until mental health and understanding is achieved, attorneys and the judge said Wednesday. If he's still considered mentally incompetent after a year, he will be held for treatment for at least another two years. His confinement could last his entire life.
"I expect he will be there for more than a year," Sussman said,
Sussman asked Russo to dismiss the multiple felony charges against Thomas since he ruled him incompetent.
Prosecutor Dominic Crispino, standing with District Attorney Thomas Walsh, opposed dismissing the charges. Walsh expects Rockland will prosecute Thomas when he's found competent.
Russo said he would read the case law arguments from Sussman and Crispino on whether to dismiss the charges. Dismissal would not free Thomas from confinement.
The Rockland charges include second-degree murder, six counts of attempted murder, and assault counts. Sussman has pleaded Thomas not guilty to murder and the earlier 14-count indictment. The murder count carries a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.
A 10-count federal indictment accuses Thomas of hate crimes and injuring five people while trying to kill them based on their religion and obstructing the free exercise of religion in an attempt to kill them.
Family dismisses antisemitic claims
When Thomas entered the courtroom on Wednesday, wearing a jumpsuit and his hands chained at the waist, his weeping mother, Kim Thomas, called out, "Grafton, I love you." She then cupped her hands at her chest as her pastor, the Rev. Wendy Paige, held her shoulders.
Outside the courthouse, Kim Thomas did not speak, but Paige said the family was thankful for his return to New York and the judge recognizing mental illness in this case. Paige has described Grafton Thomas "as a gentle giant with mental illness."
"She sends her condolences to the Jewish community," Paige said, speaking for Kim Thomas.
Sussman and Grafton Thomas' family have said he had undergone a mental decline over the last 10 to 15 years and had been prescribed at least three medications for depression and psychosis. Thomas was hospitalized for several days in April 2019 for psychiatric reasons, he said.
They have dismissed concerns that Thomas was driven to attack the Hasidic Jews based on antisemitism.
The attack drew national attention and brought state and federal elected officials into Rockland, including two governors and members of Congress.
Thomas, a Greenwood Lake resident, is accused in a federal complaint of hate crimes and maintaining a journal containing references to Nazism and to the Black Hebrew Israelites — the group linked to the fatal attack on a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The FBI searched Thomas' home and his cellular telephone, finding references to Jews, Hitler, the Nazi culture, as well as packaging for an 18-inch machete, according to the complaint signed by FBI Special Agent Julie Brown.
His cellphone's internet browser included searches for topics such as "Why did Hitler hate the Jews; German Jewish Temples near me; Zionist Temples in Elizabeth, NJ; Zionist Temples of Staten Island; Prominent companies founded by Jews in America;" according to the complaint.
Hanukkah attack on Forshay
Authorities said Thomas burst into Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's house on Forshay Road, declaring, "No one is leaving" and started slashing and stabbing people with an 18-inch machete.
One partygoer chased Thomas out of the house wielding furniture, and gave his license plate number to Ramapo police.
Two NYPD officers stopped the car at 11:49 p.m. that night, detecting a strong smell of bleach, and saw blood on Thomas' clothing, authorities said. The officers seized a machete with dried blood on it from under the front passenger seat and a knife with traces of dried blood and hair from the pocket of the rear of the front passenger seat.
Ramapo police have said Thomas remains a suspect in the predawn attack and stabbing of a then 30-year-old rabbi walking to a synagogue on Howard Drive in Monsey on Nov. 20, 2019. No arrests or charges have been made.
Walsh said Thomas's hospital confinement is one step forward to get justice for the man killed and those injured. He said if not for the bravery of party-goer Yosef Gluck, who fought off Thomas, many more could have been gravely injured or killed.
“The events that unfolded on December 28, 2019, shocked all of Rockland County and the country," Walsh said Wednesday in a statement. "Today, we take one step forward on ensuring justice for the victims. My deepest sympathies to all the victims."
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at email@example.com. Twitter: @lohudlegal. Read more articles and bio. Our local coverage is only possible with support from our readers.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Ramapo machete attack: Grafton Thomas found unfit to stand trial