Suspect arrested in Temple Ner Tamid attack
Stitching together video evidence and a photo of a license plate, law enforcement officials have arrested a 26-year-old man and charged him in the attack on Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey on Wednesday night, Feb. 1.
The suspect, identified as Nicholas Malindretos from Clifton, is facing a federal charge that he "attempted use of fire to damage and destroy a building used in interstate commerce," according to the release.
The arrest, three days after the attack on the synagogue, was first announced by Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia on his Facebook page at about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The arrest was also confirmed to Montclair Local by Josh Katz, the synagogue’s congregation president. He said the temple had been alerted that an announcement was coming.
Malindretos, the U.S. Attorney's release says, is the man – his face all but obscured under a black ski mask – captured in video surveillance footage in the dead of night on Sunday, Jan. 29, lighting the wick of a Molotov cocktail and then hurling the weapon at the synagogue's main entrance. The device did not explode when it struck the glass doors, instead shattering to the ground, police said. The building and doors were not damaged, and no one was hurt, the police said.
"No one should find that their lives are at risk by exercising their faith,” said Philip Sellinger, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “The defendant is alleged to have gone to a synagogue in the middle of the night and maliciously attempted to damage and destroy it using a firebomb. Protecting communities of faith and houses of worship is core to this office’s mission."
The attack, coming two days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, when seven people were fatally shot outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem, jolted a congregation that counts scores of Montclair residents among its congregants.
Rabbi Marc Katz stood on the lawn in front of the synagogue at 936 Broad St. Wednesday night and expressed relief and gratitude that someone had been caught, along with a degree of sadness for the suspect.
"My inclination was as long as the perpetrator was out there, it meant that he could potentially come back," Katz said. "And so there is a sense that at least this particular threat has been neutralized."
The rabbi was asked for his reaction on the possible role that mental and emotional issues may have played in the attack.
"It's very complicated," Katz said. "What I'll say is that there are many people with mental illness in this country that would never think to do what he did. Which means that there has to be an element to why he chose us. And so my heart goes out to him. And at the same time I'm not sure that one can discount the fact that he chose us as a target."
The surveillance cameras at the synagogue and a license plate reading device positioned less than a half-mile away played a crucial role in leading investigators to Malindretos, according to a criminal complaint filed against him in U.S. District Court of New Jersey on Wednesday.
According to the complaint, investigators from the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies began their work with the video of a man, only his eyes appearing from beneath the ski mask, wearing black pants, dark shoes, white cloth gloves and a black or dark gray hooded sweatshirt bearing an emblem appearing to be a skull and cross bones.
The license plate reading device, about 0.3 miles away at the crossing of Watchung Avenue and Broad Street, which is just by the Holsten's ice cream shop, detected the license of a vehicle that passed through the intersection at 3:04 a.m., the complaint says. That was 15 minutes before the suspect flung the lighted Molotov cocktail. Ten minutes after that, the same license reader recorded a black Volkswagen sedan with the same plate passing back through the intersection, the complaint says.
The trail was picked up two days later on Tuesday, Jan. 31, when law enforcement located the Volkswagen parked on a Clifton street. According to the complaint, investigators could easily see through the car's windows and spotted a hooded sweatshirt that seemed to match the sweatshirt seen in the temple's surveillance video. Also visible, the complaint says were "bottles of unidentified liquids."
Later, after obtaining a search warrant, investigators recovered the sweatshirt, which, the complaint says, bore the same markings of the sweatshirt seen during the attack. They also found white cloth gloves and a ski mask matching the items seen in the temple's video, the complaint says.
Video surveillance cameras near where the Volkswagen was parked in Clifton had captured the car parking, and a man with the "same physical characteristics" as the suspect stepping out of the car and entering a nearby two-story building, the complaint says.
The building's owner later told investigators that the man lived in the basement, according to the complaint.
Malindretos was scheduled to appear in federal court in Newark on Thurs., Feb. 2.
Katz, Ner Tamid's rabbi, alerted the congregation of the arrest in an email Wednesday afternoon, saying, "We wanted to share some good news that investigators have arrested a person they suspect was responsible for Sunday morning’s attack on our synagogue."
In his message, the rabbi said that law enforcement will be "investigating the suspect’s ties – if any – to individuals or groups with hateful, violent, traitorous, or insurrectionist goals."
The attack set off a frantic morning Sunday, as the temple hurried to get last-minute word to families Judaic study classes had been canceled.
Many groups and individuals reached out to Ner Tamid to offer support and solidarity. Gov. Phil Murphy paid a visit to the temple on Tuesday evening.
The attack is “absolutely despicable,” Murphy said after meeting privately with Katz and other Ner Tamid leaders inside the temple.
“Unfortunately, the amount of antisemitic actions in New Jersey is almost exploding,” Murphy said. “And I wish I could say that it were better elsewhere, that we could learn from it. Unfortunately, we're not immune to this.”
Upon hearing the news that a suspect had been arrested, Montclair Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, a congregation member, called Temple Ner Tamid an "extension of my home" and expressed hope that the arrest would "bring some repair to a traumatized community."
In an email to Montclair Local, she said that her relief is tempered by broader concerns over acts of hate.
"The circumstances that have given rise to historic levels of antisemitism, and of countless other violence and affronts to people of color, gay or otherwise deemed 'other,' have left a deep unease," she wrote.
She plans, she said, to bring a “Stand up for the Other Pledge” to the Township Council. She said the pledge was formulated by Ali Chaudry, a leader in the state's Muslim community, with whom she has worked on "inter-religious/inter-ethnic understanding."
"It will be one more effort to reverse the sickening trends about which we are reading and even experiencing," Price Abrams said.