The 19-year-old accused of attacks on two area synagogues pled not guilty at his first arraignment in Hackensack Superior Court on Wednesday, while his attorney requested a change of venue outside of Bergen County for the trial.
Authorities arrested 19-year-old Anthony M. Graziano of Lodi late Monday night in connection with attacks on Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun of Paramus and Congregation Beth El in Rutherford. Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli elaborated on the events leading to Graziano’s arrest during a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Paramus. Graziano allegedly used gasoline in the Paramus arson and Molotov cocktails in Rutherford. In both cases, Graziano rode his bike to the synagogues.
Graziano, who lives with his mother and siblings, is believed to have acted alone, Molinelli said. The prosecutor described Graziano, a 2010 graduate of Hasbrouck Heights High School, as a loner with few friends. He did not have any relationship with either synagogue, Molinelli said, and likely chose the targets based on their proximity through an Internet search.
“There is no connection between him and any congregationist. There is no connection between him and the rabbi,” Molinelli said. “He simply Googled area synagogues, obviously taking into consideration that he would be utilizing his bike to get there, probably choosing synagogues in more residential areas….”
Graziano has been charged with nine counts of first-degree attempted murder, one count of first-degree bias intimidation, and one count of first-degree aggravated arson in the Rutherford case, and first-degree aggravated arson, first-degree bias intimidation, and third-degree arson for the Paramus case. He likely faces between 40 and 80 years in prison, Molinelli said.
Arson is usually a second-degree offense under New Jersey law, Molinelli explained, but it becomes the first-degree offense of aggravated arson when a house of worship is involved.
“We have no doubt that the arson and the attempted murder in Rutherford were directly the result of Mr. Graziano’s hatred for people of the Jewish faith,” Molinelli said. “We believe that he did this because they were synagogues and specifically to intimidate and cause alarm or concern to people of the Jewish community.”
Graziano used empty raspberry Crush soda bottles, motor oil, duct tape, and three cans of hair spray to create the Molotov cocktails, Molinelli said. Detectives looked for stores where these items could be purchased all at once. This led them to the Rutherford Wal-Mart.
The Prosecutor’s Office on Friday released security footage of Graziano buying the ingredients for his explosives, which spurred a number of valid tips on Monday that led to his arrest late Monday night, according to Molinelli. While Molinelli spoke, video played in the background of Graziano making the purchases at the Wal-Mart and paying in cash.
“The individuals at Wal-Mart were very, very cooperative,” Molinelli said.
|Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli points to the ingredients used to build the firebombs.|
As for the $7,500 reward promised by the Anti-Defamation League, Etzion Neuer, acting director of the ADL’s New Jersey office, told The Jewish Standard afterward that the reward would be paid if Graziano is convicted. Now that the BCPO has separated the graffiti incidents from the firebombings, Neuer would not commit to a reward for information on the graffiti.
“Mr. Graziano is somebody that is an anti-Semite,” Molinelli said. “He is somebody who has a hatred of the Jewish faith.” The prosecutor, however, reminded attendees that Graziano is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. “We’re dealing with a statute that by nature compels me to make a determination that this man does have an animus, an animus against people of this particular religion.”
Molinelli thanked the Jewish community for its cooperation during the investigation. The BCPO continues investigating the graffiti incidents at synagogues in Maywood and Paramus in December, but does not believe Graziano was involved, Molinelli said. The investigation into a series of anti-Semitic mailings last week to a number of synagogues and institutions has been turned over to New York postal authorities.
Neuer praised Molinelli and his department, but warned against allowing this success to lead to a relaxation of security.
“As a community, we hope that we never again have to stand together and have discussions about horrific events like firebombings and arson. It’s 2012 and these are events we hope we would never see,” he told The Jewish Standard. “While we would expect our community to breathe a little bit easier, it’s important that we do not let our relief lead to a laxity in the area of communal security, if Jewish institutions pledged to themselves and their membership to make their institutions more secure, that they follow up with this.”
Following the press conference, David Gad-Harf, chief operating officer and associate executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, praised the BCPO and its cooperation with the Jewish community, as well as what he called an outpouring of support in the area from outside the Jewish community.
“It really shows how Bergen County has banded together during a very horrible time,” he said. “Sometimes out of bad incidents like this come goodness, whether it’s recognizing the value and support of law enforcement agencies or the outpouring of support and goodwill of other faith groups and ethnic communities here in Bergen County.”
Speaking with the Standard later Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Nosson Schuman, who lives in the home attached to Beth El with his wife and five children and whose hands were burned by a Molotov cocktail that crashed through his bedroom window, thanked Bergen County and Rutherford law enforcement for their help in capturing the alleged arsonist.
“The great fear he brought is lifted off our shoulders,” Schuman said. “We’re really glad they caught him. It’s not only a benefit for us but for the whole tri-state area.”
Schuman noted that he and the synagogue have received hundreds of letters of support from across the country, from schools, congregations, and individuals. He credited widespread generosity from the community and across the country for helping raise the money necessary to upgrade the synagogue’s security systems, through an online campaign at www.donatebethel.com, created by Adam Wolf, a West Orange resident who grew up in Rutherford and whose parents still attend Beth El.
“The generosity of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities at large has been wonderful,” he said. “It’s been very beautiful.”
Graziano’s bail was set at $5,000,000 and his first arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday.