Suspect Faces Federal Charges After 5 People Stabbed at New York Hanukkah Celebration. Here's What to Know

Tara Law

A man accused of stabbing five people during a Saturday evening Hanukkah celebration at an Orthodox rabbi’s home in New York is facing federal criminal charges.

Grafton E. Thomas, 37, appeared in federal court today to face five counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon and causing injuries. Police say that Thomas fled to New York City after the attack, where he was arrested.

Thomas has also been charged with five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary, according to the Town of Ramapo Police Department, which is investigating the case.

The incident unfolded next to the rabbi’s synagogue in Monsey, a small town in Rockland County about 20 miles outside of New York City. Rockland County has the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the United States, according to New York State. About 31.4% of the county’s residents are Jewish.

The attack comes amid growing concern about anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York and the surrounding region. In the most violent incident, four people were shot and killed in nearby Jersey City, N.J. in an anti-Semitic attack that targeted a kosher deli on Dec. 10.

Just one month ago, an Orthodox man was stabbed in Monsey near a local synagogue.

What happened in the Monsey stabbing?

Shortly before 10 p.m. on Saturday, people had gathered at the home of Hasidic Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg next to his synagogue, Congregation Netzach Yisroel, to celebrate the seventh day of Hanukkah and the end of Shabbat, Judaism’s day of rest.

A witness, Josef Gluck, told the Associated Press that a man “came in wielding a big knife, sword, machete — I don’t know what it was.” Gluck told the AP that he hit the assailant with a coffee table.

Thomas, who was wearing a scarf on his face, told the group “no one is leaving,” according to the federal criminal complaint.

Thomas stabbed and slashed at the people, leaving people with slash wounds and “deep lacerations,” according to the complaint.

Thomas fled in a car, but a witness spotted him driving away and gave the police his license plate number, said Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel, the Associated Press reported. He was taken into police custody in Manhattan shortly before midnight, according to the complaint. Weidel said the license plate number was “critical” to the arrest, the AP added. A machete and knife with traces of blood were recovered from the car, according to police.

The attack is just the latest in a series of anti-Semitic hate crimes to sew fear in the region. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that there have been 13 ant-Semitic attacks in New York State since Dec. 8. In response to this and other attacks, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Friday that he will increase NYPD patrols in three Brooklyn neighborhoods with large numbers of Jewish residents: Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park.

What do we know about the suspect?

Grafton E. Thomas, 37, of Greenwood Lake, N.Y., has been charged with the attack and appeared in federal court on Monday. Prosecutors said in a criminal complaint that Thomas had blood on his clothing and smelled like bleach. He was arraigned and pleaded not guilty on Sunday morning, according to the Town of Ramapo Police Department.

FBI investigators searched Thomas’ home and found handwritten journals in which he expressed anti-Semitic views, according to the complaint. His phone browser’s history also recorded a visit to a news article that said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had increased the police presence in certain neighborhoods with large Jewish communities, as well as searches for Jewish synagogues nearby, according to the complaint.

Susanne Brody, his court-appointed attorney, said that he has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to the Associated Press. He is being held without bail.

Defense attorney Michael Sussman told reporters that Thomas was “not terribly coherent” according to the Associated Press.

“My impression from speaking with him is that he needs serious psychiatric evaluation,” Sussman said.

Thomas’ family said in a statement that he has struggled with mental illness, but no history of violence, and has been hospitalized multiple times, according to the Associated Press.

“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 said in a statement, the AP reported.

What do we know about the victims?

The victims have not yet been identified, but Yossi Gestetner of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council said that one was the rabbi’s child.

Gestetner said that two were taken from the scene in critical condition, and that a senior was in very critical condition. The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council said that one of the victims had been stabbed six times, while the least severely injured person had been stabbed in the hand.

As of Monday morning, two victims being treated at Good Samaritan Hospital have been released, hospital spokeswoman Helene Guss told CNN.

How are officials responding?

The New York State Police’s hate crimes task force will be directed to investigate the attack, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Twitter early Sunday. He described the stabbing as a “despicable and cowardly act,” and announced that he will direct the New York State Police to increase their presence in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods across the state.

Cuomo described the attack to reporters as “domestic terrorism.” He said that the attack is indicative of larger national problem with hate that he describes as an “American cancer that is spreading in the body politic.”

“I wish I could say it’s an isolated situation. Unfortunately, it’s not. We’ve had 13 acts of anti-Semitism since Dec. 8 in New York State,” Cuomo said. He noted that other incidents have affected the LGBTQ, black and Hispanic communities.

“If anyone thinks that something poisonous is not going on in this country, then they’re in denial, frankly. How many incidents do you have to see from coast to coast?” Cuomo said.

After the attack, four Orthodox Jewish elected officials — State Senator Simcha Felder, State Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, New York City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, and New York City Councilmember Kalman Yeger — submitted a letter to Cuomo asking him to declare a state of emergency and deploy State Police and the New York National Guards to protect Orthodox neighborhoods. The also asked him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate anti-Semitic violence.

“Simply stated, it is no longer safe to be identifiably Orthodox in the State of New York. We cannot shop, walk down a street, send our children to school, or even worship in peace,” the letter said.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted a response to the attack, wishing the victims “a quick and full recovery.”

Evan Bernstein, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, expressed concern that the attack is part of a larger problem with society. “This is not just policing. These are communal problems, these are societal problems that we need to get in front of and figure out why these things are happening,” Bernstein told reporters.

He added that he is concerned anti-Semitic incidents are going unreported because of the Orthodox community’s closed-off nature, concerns about retaliation, or a lack of knowledge about reporting. “When will a break from this hate come? When will the community be able to be relaxed again? Hanukkah will never be the same for so many of the Jews impacted,” Bernstein wrote on Twitter.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, also took to Twitter to wish the victims a strong recovery and condemn the attack.