Suspect in New York Hanukkah celebration stabbings has ‘long history of mental illness,’ family says

Posted at 10:29 PM, Dec 30, 2019

The man accused of barging into a rabbi’s Monsey, New York, home and stabbing five people at a Hanukkah party with a machete has a “long history of mental illness and hospitalizations,” his family and attorney said.

Grafton Thomas, 37, has suffered from depression and psychosis for years, said his lawyer, Michael Sussman, and was hospitalized several times in 2019.

Sussman said he’s talked to Thomas since his arrest. Thomas said that on the night of the stabbings, he heard a “voice talking to him about a piece of property that he understood was in that house,” Sussman told CNN. But Sussman did not say what kind of property Thomas was looking for.

Thomas talked about “various auditory hallucinations and one might say ‘demons, ‘ ” Sussman said. “His explanations were not terribly coherent.”

Thomas’s family issued a statement saying in part, “We believe the actions of which he is accused, if committed by him, tragically reflect profound mental illness for which. … Grafton has received episodic treatment before being released.”

Governor calls attack a ‘blatant act of domestic terrorism’

Public officials denounced the attack as an act of hate, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the machete attack a “blatant act of domestic terrorism that sought to inflict violence, incite hate and generate fear.”

Federal prosecutors say Thomas entered the rabbi’s home in Monsey, located north of Manhattan, on Saturday night and told the dozens of people there “no one is leaving.” He attacked them with an 18-inch machete, with at least five victims suffering injuries ranging from slash wounds to a severed finger and a skull fracture, federal prosecutors said.

Thomas was arrested early Sunday about an hour after the attack after a license plate reader captured his Nissan Sentra’s tag as he was crossing the George Washington Bridge into New York City, authorities said. He smelled of bleach and had blood on his clothes, a prosecutor said.

Thomas has pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder. Federal authorities on Monday charged Thomas with obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill, a federal hate crime, after authorities discovered anti-Semitic journal entries in his home.

Thomas, a resident of Greenwood Lake, New York, is being held on $5 million bond on the attempted murder charges. A federal judge ordered him detained after his arraignment on Monday.

A federal public defender told a judge Thomas was taking medications and has “issues with bipolar and schizophrenia.” Sussman told CNN Thomas might have stopped taking his medications.

Sussman said he’s seeking a thorough psychiatric evaluation for his client.

The journal entries

The journals found in the suspect’s home led to the hate crime charges.

One entry said “Hebrew Israelites” took from the “powerful ppl (ebinoid Israelites)” and questioned “why ppl mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide.” The criminal complaint said “ebinoid Israelites” appears to be a reference to the “Black Hebrew Israelite” movement.

Sussman said he had not seen those journal entries but had reviewed earlier writings by Thomas. Those writings reflect the “ramblings of a disturbed individual” but contain “no suggestion … of an anti-Semitic motive, of any anti-Semitism,” Sussman said.

When asked if Thomas was involved in the “Black Hebrew Israelite” movement, Sussman said he’d heard nothing that indicated that.

A man suspected of killing a police officer and three people at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey, this month, has been linked to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, a law enforcement official said.

The Black Hebrew Israelite movement comprises groups or members that have expressed anti-Semitic sentiments, however the Southern Poverty Law Center does not recognize the overall movement as a hate group.

But SPLC lists dozens of groups within the Black Hebrew Israelite movement as hate groups because its worldview and rhetoric are informed by bigotry against whites and Jews, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project.

‘A gentle giant with mental illness’

Thomas’ relatives said he has a “long history of mental illness and hospitalizations,” according to the statement released by Sussman.

“He has no known history of anti-Semitism and was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races,” the statement said.

Thomas’ mother, a registered nurse who works in hospital in New York City, wasn’t ready to speak to reporters, Sussman said.

Thomas had been arrested twice before, public defender Kristine Ciganek told a judge during Thomas’ arraignment Sunday on attempted murder charges.

Those arrests were earlier this year for menacing and reckless endangerment, Rockland County Senior Assistant District Attorney Michael Dugandzic said. The outcome of those charges weren’t immediately clear.

Thomas’ family said he had no history of similar violent acts and had no prior convictions.

United Methodist Church Pastor Wendy Paige, who has known Thomas for the past 10 years, said he has a mental illness and is “not a terrorist.”