BY RYAN TARINELLI AND MICHAEL BALSAMO
A knife-wielding man stormed into a rabbi’s home and stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City, an ambush the governor said Sunday was an act of domestic terrorism fueled by intolerance and a “cancer” of growing hatred in America.
Police tracked a fleeing suspect to Manhattan and made an arrest within hours of the attack Saturday night in Monsey. Grafton E. Thomas had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach when officers stopped him, prosecutors said.
Thomas, 37, was arraigned Sunday and pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. Bail was set at $5 million.
Thomas’ criminal history includes an arrest for assaulting a police horse, according to an official briefed on the investigation. A lawyer representing Thomas at the arraignment said he had no convictions.
The FBI is seeking a warrant to obtain his online accounts and were scouring digital evidence, the official said. They are also looking into whether he has a history of mental illness.
The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The stabbings on the seventh night of Hanukkah left one person critically wounded, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. The rabbi’s son was also injured, he said. Authorities have not provided a motive.
The attack was the latest in a string of violence targeting Jews in the region, including a Dec. 10 massacre at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey. Last month in Monsey, a man was stabbed while walking to a synagogue.
Cuomo said Saturday’s savagery was the 13th anti-Semitic attack in New York since Dec. 8 and endemic of “an American cancer on the body politic.”
“This is violence spurred by hate, it is mass violence and I consider this an act of domestic terrorism,” Cuomo said. “Let’s call it what it is.”
Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel said it was unclear why the rabbi’s house was targeted or if a specific ideology motivated the suspect. According to the official briefed on the investigation, authorities do not believe Thomas is connected to recent anti-Semitic incidents in New York City.
The stabbings happened around 10 p.m. Saturday at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, located next door to his Congregation Netzach Yisroel synagogue. The large house on Forshay Road remained cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape Sunday.
“The guy came in wielding a big knife, sword, machete — I don’t know what it was,” said Josef Gluck, who hit the assailant with a coffee table during the attack.
“He took it out of his holder, started swinging,” Gluck said.
Rabbi Motti Seligson, the media director of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, said witnesses told him that people fled the house and went to the synagogue where they locked themselves in. Rabbi Rottenberg led the service at the synagogue later, he said.
Weidel said a witness saw the suspect fleeing in a car and alerted police to the license plate number. 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.
Thomas played football for two seasons at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He lives with his mother in Greenwood Lake, New York, about 20 miles from Monsey, a prosecutor said. No one answered a telephone number listed for his address and the voicemail box was full.
Monsey, near the New Jersey state line about 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of New York City, is one of several Hudson Valley communities that has seen an influx of Hasidic Jews in recent years.
The attack and the recent wave of anti-Semitic violence in the region drew condemnation from various officials.
“Israel unequivocally condemns the recent expressions of anti-Semitism and the vicious attack in the middle of Hanukkah on the rabbi’s house in Monsey, New York,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter that she was “deeply disturbed” by the stabbing in Monsey and other recent recent anti-Semitic attacks in the New York City area.
“We must condemn and confront anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry and hate wherever & whenever we see them,” Pelosi said.
Jewish communities in the New York City metropolitan area have been left shaken following a deadly Dec. 10 shooting rampage at a Jersey City kosher market.
Six people — three people who had been inside the store, a police officer and the two killers — died in the gunbattle and standoff that New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has said was “fueled” by hatred of Jews and law enforcement.
Last month, a man was stabbed while walking to a synagogue in the same town that was the site of Saturday night’s attack; he required surgery. It’s unclear whether the assailant has been arrested.
And this past week in New York City itself, police have received at least six reports — eight since Dec. 13 — of attacks possibly motivated by anti-Jewish bias. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that police presence would increase in Brooklyn neighborhoods home to large Jewish populations.
“The Jewish community is utterly terrified,” Evan Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey, said in a statement. “No one should have to live like this. How many more times will it take for people in the Orthodox Jewish community to be terrorized with violence before something changes?”
Associated Press writers Justin Madden and Gary Fields contributed to this story.