NEW YORK — The man accused of barging into a rabbi's Monsey, New York, home and stabbing five people at a Hanukkah party has a "long history of mental illness and hospitalizations," according to a family statement issued by his attorney.
Grafton Thomas was arrested about an hour after the attack when a license plate reader captured his Nissan Sentra's tag as he was crossing the George Washington Bridge into New York City, authorities said. He smelled strongly of bleach and had blood on his clothes, Rockland County Senior Assistant District Attorney Michael Dugandzic said.
"We believe the actions of which he is accused, if committed by him, tragically reflect profound mental illness for which ... Grafton has received episodic treatment before being released," according to his family's statement.
Thomas was arraigned Sunday on five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary, Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel said. He pleaded not guilty and his bail was set at $5 million. If released, he has to forfeit any firearms he owns and stay away from the victims and the rabbi's home, a judge ruled.
Aron Kohn, who was inside the home Saturday night said the suspect pulled out a knife as large as "a broomstick" and began stabbing indiscriminately into a crowd of about 100 people that gathered for the celebration. Kohn told CNN he saw the suspect try to run into a nearby synagogue, but someone noticed and closed the doors before he was able to get in.
Witnesses described a suspect running and striking whoever he could.
"He took out his knife from a holder and started hitting people back and forth," Josef Gluck told CNN affiliate WLNY. "He didn't say anything. He screamed after me when I came out here. He screamed after me 'Hey you, I'll get you.' That's about it."
Public officials denounced the attack as an act of hate, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it a "blatant act of domestic terrorism that sought to inflict violence, incite hate and generate fear."
Family wants mental health evaluation for Thomas
In Thomas' arraignment Sunday, public defender Kristine Ciganek said he had no criminal history and lived with his mother.
He had been arrested twice before, Ciganek said, and Dugandzic added those arrests were earlier this year for menacing and reckless endangerment. The outcome of those charges weren't immediately clear.
The suspect's family said he had no history of similar violent acts and had no prior convictions. They said they directed Thomas' new attorney, Michael Sussman, to seek a mental health evaluation for Grafton.
"He has no known history of anti-Semitism and was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races," they said in their statement. "He is not a member of any hate groups."
Two people who knew Thomas echoed similar sentiments.
He was a "loving man with a lot of creativity," family friend Taleen Collins.
"Grafton has always been a loving, loving man towards me," Collins said. "He calls me 'auntie' sometimes... He's just a loving person. I've never seen anything violent."
The suspect is "not a terrorist," United Methodist Church Pastor Wendy Paige said, adding she's known Thomas for about the past 10 years. "He's not a violent person."
Hate Crimes Task Force is investigating the attack
The attack in the rabbi's home was one in a string of others targeting the state's Jewish community.
Saturday's stabbing is the 13th act of anti-Semitism in New York in the past three weeks, Cuomo said.
They're symptoms of what the governor called "an American cancer that is spreading in the body politic." He added that he wants to propose a law which would make New York the first state to treat these types of incidents as domestic terrorism."
"These are terrorists in our country perpetrating terrorism on other Americans, and that's how we should treat it and that's how I want the laws in this state to treat it."
Following Saturday night's attack, Cuomo also directed the state's Hate Crimes Task Force to investigate.
In a news conference Sunday, New York Attorney General Letitia James said the people carrying out these attacks should face severe consequences.
"It's really critically important that we all stand together and let individuals know that in the state of New York that hate will not be tolerated and that any individual who is responsible for these crimes should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," she said.
Thomas' next court appearance is Friday.