The man accused of entering the home of a New York rabbi and stabbing five people with a machete in a horrifying anti-Semitic attack on Saturday night pleaded not guilty to multiple murder charges hours after the attack.
Wearing a white jumpsuit, Grafton E. Thomas, 37, of Greenwood Lake, N.Y., appeared at the Ramapo Town Hall in Ramapo, N.Y. Sunday morning, faces five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. Bail was set at $5 million.
Police said Thomas alleged entered the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, a suburb north of New York City, during a Hanukkah celebration – the latest in a string of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks that including beatings of Jewish people in the streets of New York City and a massacre at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J.
Thomas fled the scene of the stabbing but was later captured in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. He had blood all over this clothing and smelled of bleach, according to prosecutors.
One person was very seriously wounded, the governor told reporters, and remained in critical condition. The rabbi’s son was also injured, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. His status and that of the other victims was not clear.
Authorities have not provided a motive for the attack, but Cuomo said it was an example of larger problems.
“This is an intolerant time in our country,” he said to reporters outside the rabbi’s home on Sunday morning. “We see anger, we see hatred exploding.”
He added: “It is an American cancer on the body politic.”
Police said the stabbings happened at around 10 p.m. A witness saw the suspect fleeing in car and alerted police to license plate number, Weidel, the police chief in Ramapo, which covers Monsey, said. That allowed police to find his vehicle as he entered New York City, where police apprehended.
“I was praying for my life,” Aron Kohn, 65, who was inside the house at the time, told The New York Times. “He started attacking people right away as soon as he came in the door. We didn’t have time to react at all.”
Among the groups condemning the attack was the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“The political leadership in New York isn’t doing nearly enough to protect its Jewish citizens,” the Republican Jewish Coalition wrote on Twitter. “This has become a daily occurrence in NY. These attacks might not be a convenient talking point for those on the left, but they still need to speak out.”
Monsey – a town of about 18,000 residents some 35 miles north of New York City – had seen a previous attack just last month, when a 30-year-old man on his way to morning prayers was beaten and stabbed, The Journal News of Rockland County reported.
In New York City, the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau said it was “closely monitoring” Saturday’s attack in Monsey, and the Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey said it was aware of the attack and was sending representatives to the town.
Messages posted later by the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council of the Hudson Valley said that five people had been stabbed, including one victim who was struck six times, and that two of the victims were in critical condition. That message added that the suspect had been seen leaving in a gray Nissan Sentra vehicle.
Police in Clarkstown, N.Y., also were reporting that five people had been stabbed, WCBS reported.
Letitia James, the state attorney general of New York, condemned the attack in a message posted on Twitter.
“I am deeply disturbed by the situation unfolding in Monsey, New York tonight,” James wrote. “There is zero tolerance for acts of hate of any kind and we will continue to monitor this horrific situation.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also posted on Twitter around midnight Sunday.
“Horrific,” de Blasio wrote. “So many Jewish families in our city have close ties to Monsey. We cannot overstate the fear people are feeling right now.
“I’ve spoken to longtime friends who, for the first time in their lives, are fearful to show outward signs of their Jewish faith,” he added.
Also earlier Saturday, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., wrote on Twitter that “feckless leadership” in New York City was partly to blame for the wave of anti-Semitism there.
“The violent anti-Semitic attacks in NYC are being caused by raw hate, feckless leadership, a culture of acceptance, education & promotion of anti-Semitism, & lowering quality of life,” Zeldin, from the city’s Long Island suburbs, wrote. “De Blasio & ALL elected and community leaders need to step up to confront & crush this threat.”