The man accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews in a machete rampage in a Monsey rabbi’s home has a long history of mental illness, according to his lawyer, family, and friends. At age 15, Grafton Thomas wanted to be a football star and joined the Bedford Stuyvesant Kings, a neighborhood athletic program in Brooklyn.
“His grades weren’t good when he first started playing football but as he went along his grades got better and better,” said Joseph Burden, his coach at the time.
Burden said Thomas wasn’t a gifted athlete but he was a hard working kid. The team won a championship in 2000. Thomas’s mother bought the team uniforms for the game, and her son made the winning tackle. But the coach and player lost touch that year after Thomas moved upstate.
“If you had said this was a kid that would have got in trouble when he got to later in life, I would have said, ‘Nahh, he’ll be alright,’” Burden said. “Because when he left us he was all right.”
But he wasn’t all right. It was around that time Thomas’s mother started to see signs her son was mentally ill, according to Reverend Wendy Paige, who has been the family’s pastor and confidante for several years.
“It wasn’t as severe,” Paige recalled. “It was very touch and go; it wasn’t constantly. And it just worsened and worsened and worsened.”
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By the age of 25, Thomas's defense attorney, Michael Sussman, said that his client started to receive disability payments because of his mental illness. Thomas is 38 now and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. Over the years, Paige said Thomas's mother, Kim Kennedy, struggled with getting him to take his meds and at one point asked the hospital to stop his government check unless he accepted a monthly injection.
“She told me she asked them to mandate that he get a shot,” Paige said. “So that she didn’t have to worry about him taking the medication or not, and they refused.”
Hospitals don’t have the authority to mandate shots, but there is something called Kendra’s law that allows for court-ordered treatment if a person has been hospitalized repeatedly or has violent tendencies. Paige said Kennedy never mentioned Kendra’s law. But she did give her a list of hospitals where her son was a patient. There was Lincoln Hospital, Westchester Medical and Orange Regional.
Paige remembered visiting him at Orange Regional. She said he had his hands behind his back and was pulling on the back of his shirt.
“It’s a clear sign that there’s something other than normal going on with him. He recognized me. He knew who I was,” she said. “He was refusing to eat at that time.”
Thomas was vegan and Paige said he was afraid to eat.
In September of 2018, Kennedy noticed him stuttering. It was a sign of a breakdown coming on. She went to a neighbor for help. According to Paige, Thomas's mother wanted a crisis team of mental health professionals to respond but the neighbor called 911, and Thomas was arrested and charged with menacing a police officer with a knife.
Sussman said a judge agreed to dismiss the case if Thomas stayed out of trouble. But he said nobody gave him a meaningful mental health evaluation that would have included a series of valuable questions.
“Are they decompensating? Are they stable enough to live alone? What are their needs? Are they taking their medications,” Sussman said. “That criminal case was an occasion for that to occur and it did not occur.”
The Orange County District Attorney’s office would have prosecuted the case but said it could not comment on any matter that has already been sealed. Sussman said the case was closed on December 16th.
Twelve days later, Thomas would be accused of pushing his way into a Rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York and terrorizing a group of Hasidic Jews as they finished celebrating Hanukkah. Rabbi Yisroel Kahan lives in Monsey and is a liaison between the Hasidic community, local government and police. Rabbi Kahan believes the attack was too calculated to be the act of a deranged man having a breakdown.
“He wasn’t shopping and all of a sudden started attacking people around him,” Kahan said. “Or at home and started attacking family members or friends with him. This was a planned attack.”
To him, Thomas’s struggle with mental illness does not mitigate the effect the attack has had on his community. He said the damage went beyond the five people who were stabbed.
“There were victims there who were throwing chairs and tables at the person,” Kahan said. “Tomorrow there’s going to be meetings of helping people deal with the trauma.”
Police are also investigating whether Thomas was involved in a prior attack on a Hasidic man on his way to morning prayers.
Thomas is facing federal hate crime charges and five counts of attempted murder. Federal prosecutors say he targeted the community he attacked: investigators who searched his phone said they found a search for "German Jewish Temples near me" on its internet browser.
Thomas has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is currently being held at a jail in Valhalla, New York.
Paige said she understood the pain Thomas has caused but said there was more to the story.
“See his whole story. See his history. See his visits to the hospital. See his mother's cry,” she said. “Don't just judge it based off of the horror, because behind every horror there is a hopeless soul.”
Additional reporting by Lydia McMullen-Laird.