Megan Sheets, Luke Kenton, Louise Boyle, and Ariel Zilber, Daily Mail, December 29, 2019
A man accused of stabbing five people in a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration in a predominantly Jewish town in upstate New York on Saturday night has pleaded not guilty.
Grafton E Thomas, 37, of Greenwood Lake, was arraigned on five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary in Ramapo Town Court late Sunday morning. His bail was set at $5 million.
Prosecutors say Thomas stormed into the home of Rabbi Chaim Leibush Rottenberg in Monsey at around 10pm and began wildly swinging a machete at dozens of worshippers gathered for a candle-lighting ceremony on the seventh night of Hanukkah.
He stabbed multiple people as onlookers threw a coat rack, table and chair in his path and chased him out of the home, witness Josef Gluck told DailyMail.com.
‘He was silent. Deadly silent,’ Gluck said of the assailant. ‘Victims were screaming and panicking. It was chaos.’
Thomas then tried to enter the synagogue next door, Congregation Netzach Yisrael-Kosson, but it was barricaded by people who had taken shelter inside. He then reportedly fled in a gray car, as seen in surveillance video.
NYPD officers located him 30 miles away in Harlem about two hours later and he was taken into custody at the 32nd precinct. He was covered in blood and bleach at the time of his arrest.
Officials were later seen marching Grafton, who is African American, out of the precinct in handcuffs before transporting him back to Rockland County.
The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council said the five victims, all Hasidic, were transported to local hospitals with stab wounds, two in critical condition. One man remained in critical condition midday Sunday after suffering a skull fracture. One of the victims is believed to be Rottenberg’s son.
The attack appeared to be the latest in a string targeting Jews in the region, including a massacre at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey earlier this month and six other anti-Semitic incidents over the first seven nights of Hanukkah, which began on December 23.
Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed reporters on Sunday morning and branded the Monsey incident an act of domestic terrorism.
President Donald Trump also tweeted about the incident this afternoon, writing: ‘The anti-Semitic attack in Monsey, New York, on the 7th night of Hanukkah last night is horrific. We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism. Melania and I wish the victims a quick and full recovery.’
Around 50 to 70 people were inside Rottenberg’s home on Forshay Road when the attack unfolded. They were preparing to leave and make their way to the synagogue, Congregation Netzach Yisrael-Kosson, known locally as Rabbi Rottenberg’s Shul, for a service when the suspect entered wearing gloves and a scarf that obscured his face.
Gluck, 32, described the horror incident to DailyMail.com outside Rottenberg’s home on Sunday morning.
‘He was a big husky guy with a scarf over his face and nose. Only saw his forehead and eyes,’ Gluck said of the suspect.
‘He came in wielding a big knife, sword, machete – I don’t know what it was – and he started hitting people right and left.
Gluck continued: ‘He went into the dining room, hit someone there and then went through to the kitchen, swiped at more people. He then came back in the dining room where I tried to get him to run after me but he didn’t come so I came back so threw a coffee table at the guy and then he chased me.
‘I ran through a door and he started screaming: “Hey you, I’ll get you.” So I screamed for everyone to get away so nobody got hurt.
‘He then ran towards the synagogue, tried with one door it didn’t open. He then tried a second door ran to his car and drove away.’
Gluck said he ran after the fleeing car and memorized the license plate number as it drove off.
Jole Spitzer, who lives across the street from Rottenberg, said he ran home after hearing about the attack.
‘It was like a war zone. People being wheeled out of the house on stretchers and it was chaotic,’ Spitzer told DailyMail.com.
He said he didn’t know the victims by name but had seen them around the neighborhood.
Nachman Wilner, an EMT who lives two doors down from Rottenberg, told DailyMail.com he was celebrating Hanukkah with family when they heard a commotion outside.
‘We heard some sirens and then we heard more and it didn’t stop for quite a few minutes,’ Wilner said.
‘I came out side and it was like a Christmas tree all down the road with the amount of flashing lights. There was a lot of chaos.
‘We thought maybe it was a fire to start with but once we heard what it was it was frightening. We tried to keep the kids calm by telling them that somebody probably just hurt themselves – but they’re not that stupid. It was just so frightening.’
Wilner said he stayed at the scene for most of the night to help tend to victims.
‘Everyone was so afraid, questioning what happened, why this house, was it a target? It was chaotic for some time,’ he said.
Both Wilner and Spitzer said they had never heard of Grafton.
‘I don’t think he knew the neighborhood well because if he was looking for a large group of people, the synagogue was right next to the house,’ Spitzer said. ‘He would’ve gone in there first, before the house.’
Authorities have not provided a motive for the attack but said Thomas had no ties to the home.
In addition to the $5 million bail, a judge issued five orders of protection for the victims and prohibited Thomas from going near the scene of the attack.
The defendant, dressed in a white jumpsuit and gray booties with his hands cuffed behind his back, was silent during his arraignment, except for briefly conferring with the public defender who entered his plea of not guilty.
On leaving court, Thomas remained silent when asked by reporters what was his motive for the violent attack.
He has the option to request a lower bail at a hearing on Monday, but will otherwise appear back in court on Friday, January 3.
Thomas has no prior criminal convictions but has one previous arrest on his record.
Law enforcement sources searched the home where Thomas lives with his mother in Greenwood Lake on Sunday afternoon.
Local police cordoned off the street with yellow crime scene tape where the suspect lives in a brickfront two story detached house.
An FBI evidence response agent was seen entering the home around 3.15pm.
A neighbor who did not give her name told DailyMail.com that the suspect’s mom, Kim Thomas, is her friend. The neighbor said Ms Thomas is ‘suffering’ and did not expect what happened.
‘She’s overwhelmed,’ she said.
When asked if the suspect had mental health problems the neighbor replied: ‘Yes.’
Two friends of the mom left around 3pm and returned with soup.
They refused to comment but one woman said: ‘God bless. God help us.’
After the attack, the rabbi was seen addressing his congregants in Yiddish. Video circulated showing him talking to his followers.
The rabbi made remarks and then led the congregants in what appeared to be singing and clapping.
Monsey, a small hamlet located in Rockland County, is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community.
Last month, an Orthodox Jewish man was stabbed as he was walking toward a synagogue, according to The New York Times.
An estimated one-third of the 320,000 residents of Rockland County are Jewish, according to census figures.
Rockland County is the county with the highest concentration of Jews in the United States.
The four-hour gun battle at the Jewish JC Kosher Supermarket erupted after the pair shot the police officer at a nearby cemetery and then fled in a white van.
It ended after police crashed an armored vehicle through the wall of the market.
It was later learned that the two gunmen were members of the Black Hebrew Israelites movement, a fringe group known for its anti-Semitic strain of street preaching.
‘It seems like it’s open season on Jews in New York City,’ said New York City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch.