Hanukkah stabbing suspect pleads not guilty to all charges

Grafton Thomas, the suspect in the Hanukkah celebration stabbings, leaving the Ramapo Town Hall in Airmont, New York, after his arrest on Sunday. The police officers who confronted and detained him found him covered with blood. Prosecutors said they
Grafton Thomas, the suspect in the Hanukkah celebration stabbings, leaving the Ramapo Town Hall in Airmont, New York, after his arrest on Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MONSEY, NEW YORK • When he was caught, the suspect was still covered in the blood of his victims - five Hasidic Jews he had allegedly stabbed wildly with a machete at a rabbi's home while candles on the Hanukkah menorah still burned.

But the toll might have been worse had those assembled not fought back, hitting the intruder with pieces of furniture, forcing him to retreat.

He had concealed his face with a scarf when he burst into the home in a Hasidic community in the New York suburbs at about 10pm local time last Saturday, the police and witnesses said.

"At the beginning, he started wielding his machete back and forth, trying to hit everyone around," said Mr Josef Gluck, 32, who was at the home of Hasidic rabbi Chaim Rottenberg for the celebration of the seventh night of Hanukkah.

In terror, people fled the living room. Mr Gluck recalled dashing into the kitchen, scooping up a small child and then going down a back porch. He returned, saw an older victim bleeding heavily and then tried to confront the attacker.

"I grabbed an old antique coffee table and I threw it at his face," Mr Gluck said.

The suspect, Grafton Thomas, 38, was later arrested in Harlem after the police traced his car licence plate. The police have not disclosed a motive, and much about Thomas remains a mystery.

Two family friends of Thomas said he had struggled with mental illness, and they insisted that was at the root of the attack. But Governor Andrew Cuomo referred to the rampage as an "act of domestic terrorism".

The violence further traumatised the Jewish community in New York, coming after a string of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks.

It occurred less than a month after an anti-Semitic mass shooting at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey left three people dead, including two Hasidic Jews.

The New York Police Department had said it is stepping up patrols in Jewish neighbourhoods, after a series of assaults against Jews last week.

 
 
 
 

The five victims of last Saturday's attack were taken to the hospital and four of them were treated there and released. By Sunday afternoon, one remained there with a skull fracture, the officials said.

The police officers who confronted and detained Thomas found him covered with blood. The smell of bleach, possibly used to clean up the blood, wafted from his car.

Prosecutors said they believed Thomas acted alone. He is facing five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Thomas, who is tall and often had to crouch down to speak to his attorney when he was charged in court on Sunday, appeared calm and mostly kept his head down.

In a separate case last year, he was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, second-degree reckless endangerment and menacing a police or peace officer, a local newspaper reported. He was released on US$1,000 (S$1,350) bail.

Some neighbours said Thomas, who is from Greenwood Lake, New York, was an unassuming person who often played basketball at a local park and did not appear troubled.

"People are very surprised to find out that this individual is responsible for such horrific actions," said Greenwood Lake Mayor Jesse Dwyer.

Thomas is scheduled to appear in court again on Friday. Neither the police and prosecutors nor his lawyers have indicated that he is mentally ill.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2019, with the headline 'Hanukkah stabbing suspect pleads not guilty to all charges'. Print Edition | Subscribe