Marines booted Hanukkah stab suspect; searched for ‘Hitler,’ cops say
NEW YORK — The man charged with stabbing five people during a Hanukkah celebration in New York began boot camp to enter the U.S. Marine Corps but was separated from the service a month later for “fraudulent enlistment,” military officials said Tuesday.
Authorities also said Grafton Thomas had handwritten journals containing anti-Semitic references and had recently used his phone to look up information on Hitler and the location of synagogues.
A blood-stained 18-inch machete was recovered from his car, along with a knife smeared with dried blood and hair, prosecutors said in a criminal complaint.
Thomas, his ankles shackled, shuffled into the courtroom in a prison jumpsuit, telling a judge who asked him if his head was clear that he was “not clear at all” and needed sleep. But he added: “I am coherent.”
His court-appointed attorney, Susanne Brody, said Thomas has struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Another attorney retained by his family, Michael Sussman, said Thomas had been hearing voices and may have stopped taking psychiatric medications recently.
The stabbings on the seventh night of Hanukkah came amid a series of violent attacks targeting Jews in the region that have led to increased security, particularly around religious gatherings.
A criminal complaint said journals recovered from Thomas' home in Greenwood Lake included comments questioning "why ppl mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide" and a page with drawings of a Star of David and a swastika.
A phone recovered from his car included repeated internet searches for "Why did Hitler hate the Jews" as well as "German Jewish Temples near me" and "Prominent companies founded by Jews in America," the complaint said.
On the day of the stabbings, the phone's browser was used to access an article titled: “New York City Increases Police Presence in Jewish Neighborhoods After Possible Anti-Semitic Attacks. Here's What To Know,” the complaint said.
Sussman told reporters he visited Thomas' home and found stacks of notes he described as “the ramblings of a disturbed individual" but nothing to point to an “anti-Semitic motive” or suggest Thomas intentionally targeted the rabbi's home.
“My impression from speaking with him is that he needs serious psychiatric evaluation,” Sussman said. “His explanations were not terribly coherent.”
Thomas' family said he was raised to embrace tolerance but has a long history of mental illness, including multiple hospitalizations.
“He has no history of like violent acts and no convictions for any crime,” his family said in a statement. "He has no known history of anti-Semitism and was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races. He is not a member of any hate groups.”
A Marine Corps spokeswoman would not provide details on why Thomas left the Marines as a recruit in late 2002, about a month after he started training.
"Those specifics are administrative in nature and therefore information we are required to keep private,” Capt. Karoline Foote told The Associated Press.
Federal prosecutors filed hate crime charges against Thomas on Monday, accusing the 37-year-old of using a machete to wound five people inside the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York.
A criminal complaint said at least one of the victims was in critical condition with a skull fracture. That man remained in serious condition Tuesday, said former New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
Thomas is being held without bail. He was charged with five federal counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon. He also has pleaded not guilty to five state counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary.
Thomas' defense attorney told reporters about Thomas' military service during a news conference Monday in which he described his background and yearslong struggle with mental illness. Sussman provided a handwritten resume in which Thomas indicated he trained with the Marines in Parris Island, South Carolina.
Military law defines fraudulent enlistment as a “knowingly false representation or deliberate concealment as to” a recruit's qualifications. That could involve a recruit failing to disclose certain medical conditions, past drug use or an arrest record, including cases that are sealed because the recruit was a juvenile or for other reasons.
Thomas had multiple run-ins with law enforcement before he was taken into custody over the weekend, including 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. Details related to that case appear to be under seal.
Sussman wrote in an email to The AP on Tuesday that Thomas “was recruited and suffered a wrist injury during basic training” with the Marines.
“He was then released from that training,” Sussman said. “That is the best information we have at this time.”
Thomas' family has said his mental health deteriorated over the years and that he has been hospitalized on multiple occasions. After washing out of the Marines, Thomas attended William Paterson University in New Jersey between 2005 and 2007, and he played football as a running back while there.
His former coach at William Paterson, Mike Miello, told The AP that Thomas was injured early on and “wasn't around long enough to get to know him.”
When he was still in high school, Thomas was arrested in Brooklyn after police found him with a gun, recalled Joseph Burden, then his coach on a neighborhood football team.
Thomas had been heading home from practice with friends when they came across a gun and picked it up, with the intention of turning it in to the authorities for buyback money, Burden said.
Thomas was arrested with it on his way home, said Burden, who went to court and wrote a letter to support Thomas in the case. Sussman confirmed the arrest in an email to The AP, saying the firearm had been found in a park.
The case ultimately was closed without punishment, Burden added, with the judge giving Thomas a chance to go through with his plans to graduate from high school and enter the military. Sussman said the case was dismissed.
Thomas, in the meantime, went on to play fullback, nose tackle and defensive end for the team, which won a 2000 championship in a local league. At the time, “he was a joy-loving, fun-loving kid,” a typical adolescent boy who didn’t seem troubled, Burden recalled.
“We had a lot of interaction with each other, and it was all good,” Burden said. “Nothing like the trouble he has now.”