Grafton Thomas
Grafton Thomas, the suspect Image Credit: AFP

White Plains, New York: More than a month before he charged into Hanukkah celebrations with a machete, prosecutors say, Thomas Grafton used his cellphone to search the internet: "Why did Hitler hate the Jews."

That query - entered three more times over the following weeks - was just one red flag authorities found when they combed Grafton's belongings, officials said. There were more online searches, for temples "near me." There were journals with the words "Nazi Culture" on the same page as a swastika and Star of David.

The discoveries detailed by an FBI agent would bring Grafton to court Monday on federal hate-crime charges, a day after he was charged with attempted murder for the stabbing that wounded five people at a rabbi's home in New York. The 38-year-old defendant answered routine questions, telling a judge he was "coherent", before shuffling away slowly, feet shackled, to be held without bail.


Thomas's family has said the suspect has "no known history of anti-Semitism" and attributed any responsibility in Saturday's rampage in the suburb of Monsey to "profound mental illness." But a criminal complaint points to Thomas's handwritten journals and online history as evidence the man sought to target Jews in an assault that quickly renewed fears of rising violence against them.

No plea

Thomas, a resident of Greenwood Lake, New York, did not enter a plea for the latest charges at his court appearance in White Plains, and defense attorneys did not respond to inquiries on Monday. He pleaded not guilty on Sunday to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary; with Monday's filing, he also faces five counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon and causing injuries.

Even before Monday's charges brought a potential motive into focus, many officials and community leaders had denounced anti-Semitism and expressed concern about a spate of attacks on Jewish residents. Saturday's stabbing was 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks in the state, the governor said, calling the Monsey stabbing "domestic terrorism." Earlier this month, four people were fatally shot in what officials called a targeted attack on a Jersey City, New Jersey, kosher grocery store.

What he wrote

Thomas was arrested hours after the Monsey stabbing with blood on his clothes and a car that smelled of bleach, prosecutors say; authorities found mounting suggestions that fears of a targeted crime were founded.

The suspect's browser history showed queries related to Nazis, Jews and synagogues dating back to at least November 9, according to the complaint filed in Manhattan by the US attorney's office for the Southern District of New York. A day before the Monsey stabbing, the complaint says, Thomas accessed an article on New York City's decision to ramp up police presence in Jewish neighborhoods amid fears of anti-Semitic violence.

Journals discovered in Thomas's home also include anti-Semitic statements, an FBI officer writes in the federal complaint, at one point questioning "why [people] mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide."

Thomas's family sought to dispel accusations of anti-Semitism in a statement released Sunday through a lawyer, saying Thomas was not a member of any hate groups and "was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races."

The family pointed to Thomas's "long history of mental illness and hospitalisations", adding that attorney Michael Sussman plans to seek a mental health evaluation.

"We believe the actions of which he is accused, if committed by him, tragically reflect profound mental illness," Sussman said, for which "Grafton has received episodic treatment before being released."

In federal court Monday, defense lawyer Susanne Brody asked that Thomas get medical attention in jail, saying he is on two medications and that she understands "there are issues with bipolar and schizophrenia".

Sending a message

Little more about the defendant's mental health was discussed as the defendant said he understood the proceedings and declared himself indigent and eligible for free counsel.

Brody said it's not clear whether the state case against Thomas will proceed, and the district attorney for Rockland County, where Saturday's stabbing occurred, did not immediately clarify Monday.

Prosecutors said the hate-crime charges should send a "crystal clear" message, as the filing drew approval from groups that had called for concrete steps to address anti-Jewish attacks.

"As alleged, Grafton Thomas targeted his victims in the midst of a religious ceremony, transforming a joyous Hanukkah celebration into a scene of carnage and pain," Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement, calling the eighth day of Hanukkah and the new year moments "for renewed hope and resolve: To combat bigotry in all its forms - and to bring to justice the perpetrators of hate-fueled attacks."

Other officials have vowed action to prevent more violence.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, directed the state's Hate Crimes Task Force to investigate and called for harsher punishments for mass attacks motivated by hatred of an identity group. Officials in Rockland County said police would partner with private security to give area synagogues armed guards - a measure that community members say some congregations have already taken in recent months amid concerns about attacks around the country.

The hate-crime charges were a welcome sign of accountability to Yossi Gestetner, who lives a seven-minute drive from the rabbi's house and headed over during the night of the attack. He doesn't think anti-Semitism outlined in the complaint has heightened his community's fears, though - because "the concern that hate exists was already out there."

"People in the Orthodox Jewish community have been expressing concern for a very long time that there is a strain of hatred targeted toward them," said the co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. He said of Thomas: "We saw today . . . he chose Orthodox Jews."

As most leaders focus on anti-Semitism, one federal official on Monday attempted to link the attack to unauthorised immigration.

"The attacker is the US Citizen son of an illegal alien who got amnesty under the 1986 amnesty law for illegal immigrants. Apparently, American values did not take hold among this entire family, at least this one violent, and apparently bigoted, son," said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and a longtime immigration hawk, in a now-deleted tweet. Signed by President Ronald Reagan and passed on a bipartisan basis in Congress, the landmark 1986 law granted legal status to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country before 1982.

The domestic anti-terror agency, where Cuccinelli is second-in-command, did not immediately respond to requests for information about his allegations. Hours later, Cuccinelli's tweet was deleted.

Saturday's stabbing shook a county where a third of the population is Jewish and where officials said anti-Semitism has risen in recent years as increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews have made homes there.

Concerns in the Orthodox community flared last month, after a 30-year-old rabbi said two people approached him from behind on a secluded street in Monsey and beat him for several minutes - though Police Chief Brad Weidel has said there is no evidence that the man was targeted for his religion.

Then came Saturday attack as dozens celebrated the seventh night of Hanukkah inside the home of Hasidic Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg. Face covered with a scarf, the assailant told those gathered, "No one is leaving," according to Monday's federal complaint.

Random attacks

Witnesses say he unsheathed a machete, described by one person as a sword nearly the length of a broomstick, and started slashing at random, moving through the entryway, then into the dining room and eventually toward the kitchen, where people fled through a back door.

Attendee Joseph Gluck said he eventually hit the attacker in the head with a small coffee table from the entryway. Both men moved outside, and Gluck realised that the man was headed toward the synagogue, where congregants locked the doors after hearing the commotion at the rabbi's house. Gluck screamed warnings, then watched as the man tried a second door.

The attacker fled to a car and sped away, officials say, but Gluck wrote down the license plate number - crucial information that allowed authorities to catch the suspect in Harlem about midnight.

Authorities found Thomas with a machete and a knife, both showing what seemed to be traces of dried blood, Monday's federal complaint says.

Yisroel Kraus, a 26-year-old teacher who was celebrating Hanukkah at the rabbi's home with his family, said it was lucky that people had already started to filter out for the night when the attacker starting swinging at "everyone he could."

"If he had come 10 minutes earlier, the place would have been packed," said Kraus. "No way to move. No way to run. It was a miracle. It was a Hanukkah miracle."