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Suspect's family says he suffers from mental illness

Suspect in Monsey machete attack charged with 5 counts of attempted murder

Grafton Thomas, 37, denies charges, ordered held in custody; suspect arrested 30 miles from crime scene with blood on his clothes after witnesses give police car license plate

Ramapo police officers escort Grafton Thomas from Ramapo Town Hall to a police vehicle, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Ramapo, N.Y. Thomas is accused of stabbing multiple people as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi's home in the Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City. (AP Photo/Julius Constantine Motal)
Ramapo police officers escort Grafton Thomas from Ramapo Town Hall to a police vehicle, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Ramapo, N.Y. Thomas is accused of stabbing multiple people as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi's home in the Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City. (AP Photo/Julius Constantine Motal)

MONSEY, New York  — A suspect appeared in a New York court on Sunday charged with five counts of attempted murder over a stabbing spree at a rabbi’s suburban house — the latest in a spate of attacks on Jewish targets.

Grafton Thomas, 37, allegedly entered the property in Monsey, Rockland County, during celebrations on Saturday evening for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, knifing several people with a machete before fleeing.

Thomas was arraigned Sunday and pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. Bail was set at $5 million and he remains jailed. He didn’t answer questions as authorities escorted him to a waiting vehicle.

Police tracked a fleeing suspect to Manhattan and made an arrest within two hours of the attack Saturday night in Monsey. Thomas had blood all over his clothing, smelled of bleach but said “almost nothing” when officers stopped him, officials said.

A security guard stands outside the house where a stabbing spree took place in Monsey, New York,, Dec. 29, 2019. (Ben Sales / JTA)

An automated license plate reader alerted officers that the suspect’s car had crossed over the George Washington Bridge into New York City about an hour after the attack. Thomas was stopped and taken into custody about 20-30 minutes later, NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea said.

Security camera footage the NYPD made public Sunday night showed two officers approaching Thomas’s sedan with guns drawn before the suspect placed his hands on the roof of the car and he was put in handcuffs.

Thomas’s criminal history includes an arrest for assaulting a police horse, according to an official briefed on the investigation who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. A lawyer representing Thomas at the arraignment said he had no convictions.

The Greenwood Lake street where Thomas lived with his mother, about 20 miles from Monsey, was blocked with police tape Sunday as FBI agents and police officers carried items from their home.

The FBI is seeking a warrant to obtain his online accounts and were scouring digital evidence, the official said. They are also looking into his mental health history.

The family’s pastor, the Rev. Wendy Paige, said Thomas has been suffering from mental illness and that his family believes that condition was the cause of the alleged stabbings — not hatred toward Jewish people. She said his family is sorry for the pain he has caused.

Thomas played football for two seasons at William Paterson University in New Jersey. No one answered a telephone number listed for his address and the voicemail box was full.

The attack was quickly condemned as another incident underscoring growing anti-Semitic violence in the United States.

US President Donald Trump tweeted that Americans “must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters at the scene on Sunday that “these are people who intend to create mass harm, mass violence — generate fear based on race, color, creed.”

No official details were released about the victims, who were rushed to nearby hospitals. Local media said two people were seriously injured.

Everyone was screaming

One witness told how the weapon had a big handle and the attacker “swung it back and forth.”

“Everyone was screaming and panicking and shouting ‘out out out.’ It was chaos,” Joseph Gluck, 30, told reporters.

Quick-thinking Gluck said he noted down the license plate of the car and handed it to police.

Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel police entered that information into a database and used plate reader technology to track the vehicle to Manhattan, where Thomas was arrested.

“It was critical to the case,” Weidel said.

Joseph Gluck (R) talks to the press as he describes the machete attack that took place earlier outside a rabbi’s home during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah in Monsey, New York, on December 29, 2019. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP)

Last year a white supremacist walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and shot dead 11 people — the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in the United States.

And earlier this month six people, including the two attackers, were killed in a shooting at a kosher deli in Jersey City, New Jersey, which authorities said was fueled in part by anti-Semitism.

A report in April from the Anti-Defamation League stated that the number of anti-Semitic attacks in 2018 was close to the record of 2017, with 1,879 incidents.

As he did Sunday, Trump denounced anti-Semitism after previous attacks but some critics say his rhetoric has played a part.

A member of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg’s community (R) hugs a well wisher in front of the rabbi’s house on December 29, 2019 in Monsey, New York. Five people were injured in a knife attack during a Hanukkah party and a suspect was later arrested in Harlem. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are Jewish. But critics blame him for stoking racial hatreds with comments about Muslims and Latin migrants that some white nationalists have taken as confirming their position.

“I was praying for my life,” said Aron Kohn, 65, another witness to Saturday’s attack who compared the knife used by the assailant to “the size of a broomstick.”

Kohn threw chairs and tables in an attempt to head off the assault.

“I saw him stabbing people,” he added. “He injured a guy. He was bleeding in his hand, all over.”

Kohn said the attacker tried to enter the adjacent synagogue, but it was locked.

People hold signs of support near the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on December 29, 2019 in Monsey, New York. (Kena Betancur / AFP)

Yossi Gestetner, of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC), told The New York Times that one of the victims was a son of the rabbi.

“The house had many dozens of people in there,” Gestetner said. “It was a Hanukkah celebration.”

Rockland has the largest Jewish population per capita of any US county, with 31.4 percent, or 90,000 Jewish residents.

Surge in hate crimes

In response to the recent surge in hate crimes in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Friday that the NYPD was stepping up patrols and increasing visits to places of worship.

After Saturday’s attack, the mayor tweeted that he had recently spoken to longtime Jewish friends who were fearful of outwardly showing their faith.

Armed members of the Jewish community stand guard at a celebration, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Monsey, N.Y. A day earlier, a knife-wielding man stormed into a rabbi’s home and stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in the Orthodox Jewish community. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

“We will NOT allow this to become the new normal,” he wrote. “We’ll use every tool we have to stop these attacks once and for all.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country “strongly condemns the recent displays of anti-Semitism including the vicious attack at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York.”

The attack happened at about 10:00 pm on Saturday, the seventh night of Hanukkah, with about 100 people gathered for a candle-lighting ceremony.

“It’s a wave and a trend of hate-filled violence that is sweeping the country, not just NY State,” tweeted Maya Wiley, a civil rights activist and senior vice president for social justice at the New School private university in New York. “We have to stand together to keep our neighbors safe.”

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