Pastor: Alleged Monsey Hanukkah attacker is 'gentle giant with mental illness'

Greenwood Lake. Described by his family pastor as a “gentle giant with mental illness,” Grafton E. Thomas, 37, is now a suspect in a federal hate crimes case. Thomas is accused of storming into a rabbi’s home in Monsey Saturday night and stabbing five people as they celebrated Hanukkah.

31 Dec 2019 | 02:03

To law enforcement, Grafton E. Thomas is the machete-wielding attacker who allegedly stormed into a rabbi’s home Saturday night and stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in Monsey.

The family pastor, the Rev. Wendy Paige of Harriman United Methodist Church, however, thinks of Thomas, 37, of Greenwood Lake, rather differently.

'Not terrorism. Mental health.'

“He’s always been a gentle giant with mental illness,” Paige said.

Describing Thomas as a “calm, caring, loving person,” Paige’s adjectives contrast sharply with his characterization in the federal complaint against him, where he is described as covering his face with a scarf when he entered the home and saying, “No one is leaving.”

“We must look at the symbol of hope of the menorah that stood, with the oil that was still burning, and we have to acknowledge that Grafton has experienced a long history of mental health (issues),” Paige said. “That should be the focus, not terrorism. Mental health.”

Flanked by Thomas’ mother, Kim, and Paige, attorney Michael Sussman said at a press conference in Goshen Monday that he had spoken with Thomas since his arrest.

“I can tell you that I heard nothing in that conversation that confirmed that he’s a domestic terrorist,” he said.

Arrested in Manhattan within two hours of the attack, Thomas had blood all over his clothing, smelled of bleach and said “almost nothing,” when stopped by police, officials said.

He pled not guilty on Sunday to five state counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. He was charged Monday with five federal counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by attempting to kill with a dangerous weapon and causing injuries, according to the complaint.

He remains jailed.

Stressing that it is still early in the investigation, Sussman said that Thomas has a long history of mental illness.

“This is the action of an individual who has been treated in mental health facilities,” he said. “It may be that he was noncompliant with medications which were prescribed to deal with his severe depression and other manifestations of psychosis.”

'A means of demagoging'

According to Sussman, the fact that the attack was carried out on a gathering of Orthodox Jews during Hanukkah does not necessarily mean that anti-Semitism is the motive.

“Before a narrative gets too set in stone, and before political leaders use this as a means of demagoging about a particular issue, we need to know the facts,” he said. “That’s a more difficult process to amass and assemble, but it’s an important process before we take this to places where it really need not go.”

Sussman said he too was celebrating Hanukkah when the attack occurred.

“I want to extend, to those who were victimized and injured during this assault, our deepest sympathy and hope that they recover very promptly,” he said. “To the Jewish community, this is an incident which is deeply affecting and scary.”

Receiving Social Security disability insured benefits for approximately 10-12 years due to his mental status, Thomas was on antidepressive and antipsychotic medications and his struggles with mental health were known to authorities, Sussman said.

“His mental illness is not something that was developed in reference to a defense,” he said. “It’s been recognized by the authorities who provide benefits to individuals who have such mental incapacity.”

A different, earlier story

It wasn’t always like this.

According to Sussman, Thomas was once school president at his high school in Queens and was briefly a member of the U.S. Marines. He held a series of short-term jobs after he was injured and left the service, and also attended William Patterson University on a football scholarship.

None of the jobs he held were in Monsey.

“I see no work history in Monsey or any particular connection to Monsey,” Sussman said.

According to Sussman, Thomas suffered a decompensation about 10-15 years ago and has auditory hallucinations.

According to the American Psychological Association, a decompensation is a breakdown in an individual’s defense mechanisms, resulting in progressive loss of normal functioning or worsening of psychiatric symptoms.

“There seems to be an alternative universe that is present for him, which is not unusual for people who suffer from his level of psychosis,” Sussman said. “He seemed to indicate that there was a direction that he was following that evening. That direction did not involve violence toward other persons – it involved destruction of some property.”

A nurse at a hospital in New York City, Thomas’ mother, Kim, has tried to get mental help for her son, Sussman said.

“Given his age, she has not been able to control his activities directly,” he said.

Paige also said that Kim was doing the best she could to care for Thomas.

“I saw Grafton in the hospital and I question things like, ‘Can they see that he needs more services?’” she said. “As a single mother taking care of a man who has mental illness, and with the systems that be, I know that she did everything that she could.”

Thomas did not give any indication of what was to come, prior to Saturday’s attack, Paige said.

“We could’ve never known that this was going to happen,” she said. “It wasn’t something where we sat at home and said, ‘Oh look at him, he’s playing with knives.’ We didn’t see those behaviors.”

According to Sussman, Kim’s relationship with Thomas was not troubled.

“She was not afraid of her son and she had a positive, loving relationship with him,” he said. “And he toward her.”

Paige said both she and Kim are praying for the victims and their families.

“We are very much concerned about anyone who was harmed in this situation,” she said. “It is a sad situation. But we are grateful that no one has passed on from this situation. We are hoping that this will bring some attention for people who are struggling like Grafton.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

“There seems to be an alternative universe that is present for him, which is not unusual for people who suffer from his level of psychosis. He seemed to indicate that there was a direction that he was following that evening. That direction did not involve violence toward other persons – it involved destruction of some property.”
Attorney Michael Sussman, one of the lawyers for Grafton E. Thomas