NEW YORK — Two MTA police officers who arrested two men suspected of planning an attack on a shul were hailed Monday, at a press conference at City Hall where government officials and Jewish leaders celebrated a law-enforcement operation that may have prevented a massacre.
“Two dangerous hateful individuals are now in custody because of you and your quick action on the intel by the JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) and the NYPD,” said MTA CEO Janno Lieber, to Officers Connor Colasurdo and Ryan Fackner. “The story could have ended in tragedy, but, thankfully did not.”
According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, a series of threatening tweets were posted between Nov. 12 and Nov. 18, by an account belonging to Christopher Brown.
“Big moves being made on Friday,” read one message. A subsequent post included a six-second video “Brutally murder people with hatchets and whatnot. How it feels to kill people.”
“Gonna ask a Priest if I should become a husband or shoot up a synagogue and die,” read another post.
And on Friday, November 18, the account tweeted, “This time I’m really gonna do it.”
Around 9:30 p.m. Friday, police officials called NYPD Inspector Richie Taylor, the highest-ranked yarmulke-wearing officer in the Department, and shared a BOLO (“be on the lookout”) alert on Brown. As the threat was deemed credible and an attack considered imminent – on an unknown synagogue perhaps as soon as the Shabbos prayers the next day — Taylor contacted Hatzalah and Shomrim coordinators, who sent messages over their radios that all members should check their emails or group chats for the BOLO alert. The individual members were told not to take any action yet – but to be ready at 6:00 a.m. Shabbos morning to visit, warn, and stand guard at every shul, if the suspect were not caught by then.
But that plan never had to be implemented.
Meanwhile, Lasurdo and Fackner, on patrol at Penn Station, had received the BOLO on Brown released by the JTTF, which coordinates between the FBI and local law enforcement on antiterrorism issues. Officers were alerted that Brown, who lives in Aquebogue in Suffolk County, “might have been travelling … to Penn Station to take the Long Island Rail Road,” Fackner recounted at Monday’s press conference.
At 11:40 p.m. Fackner said that Brown and another man, Matthew Mahrer, entered Penn Station at the LIRR entrance at 34th Street and 7th Avenue. “We followed them down the escalator, stopped them, and made the arrest,” Fackner said. He said the arrestees did not resist, argue, or speak much at all.
“They didn’t ask a single question,” Fackner said. “Almost it seemed like they knew it was coming.”
Brown was allegedly carrying an 8-inch knife, a swastika arm patch and a ski mask.
Forty minutes before the arrest, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, police received a bag, allegedly belonging to Mahrer, containing a Glock-style pistol, a 30-round magazine, and seventeen 9mm bullets. The bag was provided to police by a resident of Mahrer’s Upper West Side apartment building.
Surveillance footage from earlier that night allegedly shows Mahrer and Brown walking into the building together, with Mahrer carrying what appeared to be that bag.
It is unclear whether Mahrer had come to the attention of law enforcement in this case only after the resident gave them the bag, or earlier through some other means. Michael Driscoll the assistant director in charge of the FBI New York field office, simply said at Monday’s press conference, “During that investigation [of Brown], a second individual, Matthew Mahrer of Manhattan was also identified as an associate.”
Following the arrest, Brown spoke to police, allegedly saying, ”Matt is one of my followers. I have Nazi paraphernalia in my house. I think it is really cool. I also operate a white supremacist Twitter group.”
Lieber said this incident is “a little personal for me.”
“My father came to this country in 1941 as a refugee from Nazism,” said the MTA CEO. “He lost his mother, my grandmother, and other relatives in the Holocaust.”
Brown allegedly told police that he had met Mahrer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that day because they “wanted to get the blessing.” Brown said a friend of Mahrer’s, named Jay, had driven them to Pennsylvania, where Brown was seeking to buy a gun. Brown said he paid Mahrer electronically $650 to buy a gun — but then changed his mind because he “was nervous about the police and didn’t want the gun anymore.” But Mahrer went ahead and purchased the gun from Jay anyway.
“I have a sick personality,” Brown told police. “I was going to be a coward and blow my brains out with it. It took me three years to finally buy the gun.”
“A potential tragedy was averted when [the defendants] were intercepted by police officers at Penn Station,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. “The Manhattan DA’s office will now pursue accountability and justice in this case with the full resources of our counter-terrorism program and recently enhanced and expanded hate crimes unit.”
Brown, 21, was charged by Bragg’s office with criminal possession of a weapon and making a terroristic threat. He was held without bail. Mahrer, 22, was charged with criminal possession of a weapon. Bail for Mahrer was set at $150,00 cash of $300,000 bond. Prosecutors had requested that he be held without bail.
Driscoll said “no decision has been made yet regarding possible federal charges”
Mayor Eric Adams said social media companies need to do more to prevent their platforms from being used to further hate-feuled violence.
“Intentionally or unintentionally, social media has become a platform that has assisted with the organizing and the growth of hate,” Adams said. “And they need to become more responsible.”
“They must reckon with the fact that their platforms are being used to spread hate and violence.”
In recent years, there have been deadly attacks on synagogues and other Jewish locations in Monsey, Jersey City, Pittsburgh and Poway, California, with perpetrators ranging from white supremacists to Black Hebrew Israelites.
An attorney for Mahrer did not immediately respond to Hamodia’s request for comment.
Legal Aid, which is representing Brown, declined to comment.