A federal hate crimes complaint filed against the man who stabbed several Orthodox Jews at a Hanukkah party on Saturday revealed indications that the man held anti-Semitic beliefs.
But the attacker’s lawyer and pastor said in a press conference Monday that a history of mental health issues had led to the attack, and that the accused, Grafton Thomas, showed no signs of hatred toward Jews.
One of Thomas’ victims remained in critical condition Monday with a skull fracture, prosecutors said, though no one was killed in the attack.
“He was able to explain his behavior with reference to various auditory hallucinations and, one might say, demons,” Thomas’ lawyer Michael Sussman told reporters in his office Monday.
“His explanations were not terribly coherent,” Sussman said, emphasizing that he believed his client needed a prompt psychiatric evaluation.
Sussman added later that, in his discussion with Thomas, “he seemed to indicate that there was a direction that he was following that evening. That direction, as I got it from him, did not involve violence toward other persons, it involved destruction of some property.”
“That obviously got out of hand,” Sussman said.
Thomas said that he had not seen the federal hate crimes charges, which were filed against Thomas just before the press conference. The complaint included Thomas’ alleged browser history and handwritten journal entries. It said that these were evidence of potential anti-Semitic beliefs.
One entry allegedly questioned “why ppl mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide.”
“Hebrew Israelites took from ‘powerful ppl (ebinoid Israelites),'” another of Thomas’ journal entries allegedly read.
“Ebinoid Israelites,” prosecutors said, appeared to be a reference to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, which claims that its adherents, rather than modern-day Jews, are the real descendants of the ancient Israelites. Some followers of the movement espouse anti-Semitic beliefs.
Several times between Nov. 9 and Dec. 16, Thomas allegedly searched for the phrase “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” on his cell phone. He allegedly also searched for “Zionist temples” in the area, as well as for “prominent companies founded by Jews in America.”
The day before the attack, he also allegedly used his phone to access an article about the string of recent anti-Semitic attacks around New York City.
In his press conference Monday, Sussman showed reporters several pages of Thomas’ writing, which he said didn’t include any sentiments that concerned Jews or anti-Semitism.
The “scores of papers,” he said, “frankly showed the ramblings of a disturbed individual, but there is no suggestion in any of those ramblings and pages of writing of an anti-Semitic motive, of any anti-Semitism.”
“Before a narrative gets too set in stone, and before political leaders use this as a means of demagoguing about a particular issue, we need to know the facts,” Sussman said separately.
Earlier in Thomas’ life, Sussman said, the stabbing suspect had served in the Marines and worked a series of jobs before suffering what Sussman called a “decompensation” in the last 10 to 15 years “which has been progressive and ongoing.”
“For a period of about 10 to 12 years he’s been classified as Social Security disability insured based on his mental status,” Sussman said. He said that Thomas suffered from psychosis and depression and that he may not have taken prescribed medication.
Referring to the bleach that authorities found in Thomas’ car when he was arrested Saturday night, Sussman said he saw more bleach at Thomas’ residence.
“He was obviously very fixated with germophobic behavior,” Sussman said, referring to Thomas “washing his hands 50 times a day.”
Wendy Paige, reverend of the Hudson Highlands Cooperative Parish, said she’d been Thomas’ pastor for 10 years, and that his mental health had improved and declined at various points during that time.
But she said there was never any indication to her or Thomas’ mother, who attended the press conference but did not speak, that Thomas would become violent.
“He’s always been a gentle giant with mental illness,” she said.