Hanukkah stabbing suspect questioned in prior Monsey attack

Members of the Guardian Angels, left, a volunteer safety patrol organization, stand in front of the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Guardian Angels and police have increased patrols in the Crown Heights neighborhood following an anti-Semitic attack on a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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NEW YORK (AP) — The man charged in the machete attack on a Hanukkah celebration north of New York City had been questioned by local authorities in connection with an earlier stabbing of an Orthodox Jewish man in the same town, police said Thursday.

Grafton Thomas faces state and federal charges in Saturday’s Hanukkah attack, which wounded five people at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York.

That attack came as police in the same town were investigating a Nov. 20 stabbing in which a man was critically injured while walking to a synagogue.

Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel said police questioned Thomas based on video evidence that suggested a Honda Pilot may have been involved in the November stabbing. Thomas’ mother drives a Honda Pilot, and authorities said they seized and searched that vehicle following Thomas’ arrest in Saturday’s attack.

Weidel said investigators have not tied Thomas to the earlier stabbing.

“We have to operate with evidence,” Weidel told reporters at a news conference. “We had no evidence, and we had no probable cause to do anything other than follow a lead.”

The police chief’s remarks came as local prosecutors were preparing to present evidence on Friday to a grand jury that will be asked to indict Thomas in connection with the Hanukkah attack.

Thomas’ defense attorney, Michael Sussman, said he asked the district attorney to delay that proceeding and allow Thomas to undergo an inpatient psychiatric evaluation.

The Rockland County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the request.

Sussman said he learned more about Thomas’ history of mental health problems after visiting Thomas’ former residence in Sullivan County and finding “rambling writings” and unopened bottles of psychotropic medication.

He said none of the writings contained signs of anti-Semitism, though he added he has not seen the materials federal authorities seized from Thomas’ home in Greenwood Lake.

Authorities have said Thomas, 37, had handwritten journals containing anti-Semitic references and had recently used his phone to look up information on Hitler and the location of synagogues,

Sussman described Thomas as a man with “tremendous mental derangement who never received the care and treatment he needed.” He provided new details about a September 2018 incident in which Thomas was arrested at his mother’s home after refusing to put down a knife that a police officer ordered him to drop.

Thomas did not undergo a psychological evaluation following that arrest, Sussman said, though mental health treatment was made a condition of the case’s dismissal.

Sussman said Thomas had been “mischaracterized” as an anti-Semite by elected leaders who do not yet know all the facts.

“There’s something here that’s seriously wrong,” he said, referring to Thomas’ lack of sufficient treatment. “How it manifested is a great tragedy.”

Sussman spoke hours after the daughter of a man gravely wounded in the machete attack made an emotional plea to end hatred and anti-Semitism.

“We want our kids to go to school and feel safe,” Nicky Kohen, the daughter of Josef Neumann, told reporters in front of her home in Rockland County. “We want to go to synagogues and feel safe. We want to go to grocery stores and malls and feel safe.”

Neumann, 72, has been unconscious since Saturday’s attack and remains in intensive care at Westchester Medical Center, where he was undergoing surgery Thursday.

The family released a statement this week saying Neumann, a father of seven, may have permanent brain damage. They also released a photograph of Neumann showing his head injuries.

“The doctors do not have high hopes for him,” Kohen said. “If he wakes up he may never be able to walk, talk or even process speech again.”

“We hope he wakes to a changed world with peace, unity and love for all,” she added. “Let’s stand up together and stop the hatred.”

Kohen described Neumann as a people person and “just an all-around fabulous guy.” She recalled a time from her childhood when he had stopped to help a man on the side of the road.

“I hope he wakes up soon and can tell you himself,” said Neumann’s son, David Neumann. “All I know is they are not very hopeful.”

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Ryan Tarinelli reported from Albany, N.Y.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the daughter’s name. It is Nicky Kohen, not Cohen.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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