By Lauren del Valle, Eric Levenson and Kristina Sgueglia, CNN
A grand jury indicted two men — one of whom is Jewish and a descendant of a Holocaust survivor — in connection with an online threat last month to attack a synagogue in New York City.
Christopher Brown and Matthew Mahrer were both indicted on charges of conspiracy and weapons possession. Brown also was charged with a felony count of making terroristic threats as a hate crime, and possession of a weapon as a crime of terrorism, among other charges.
Mahrer, who previously made bail, appeared on Wednesday in Supreme Court in New York, with family members present. He is Jewish and his grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, defense attorney Brandon Freycinet said in court, adding that his client would not want to harm his own people.
Both defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday. Brown faces up to 25 years in prison and Mahrer faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.
The two were arrested by Metropolitan Transportation Authority officers as they were entering Penn Station in Manhattan on November 19, according to NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell.
The suspects allegedly possessed a firearm, high-capacity magazine, a military-style hunting knife, a Nazi swastika arm patch, a ski mask and a bulletproof vest, officials said.
“A horrific tragedy was averted thanks to the diligence, hard work and coordination between my Office and our local, state and federal law enforcement partners,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement Wednesday. “The increase in antisemitic attacks and threats cannot and will not be tolerated. Manhattanites and all New Yorkers should know that we continue to vigorously prosecute hate crimes every day and are using every tool at our disposal to address hate and bias.”
New York state leads the nation in antisemitic incidents, with at least 416 reported in 2021, including at least 51 assaults — the highest number ever recorded by the Anti-Defamation League in New York. There were 12 assaults reported in 2020, the ADL said in an audit last week.
A total of 2,717 antisemitic incidents were reported last year across the nation — a 34% increase compared to 2,026 in 2020, according to the ADL. The ADL has been tracking such incidents since 1979 — and its previous reports have found antisemitism in America has been on the rise for years.
The indictment comes the same day that Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, held a roundtable on antisemitism at the White House during which he warned of an “epidemic of hate facing our country.”
Men traveled to Pennsylvania for weapon, documents say
A statement of facts from the prosecution and the criminal indictment offer a timeline of the men’s actions and allege that they drove from New York to Pennsylvania to get a firearm.
The documents state Brown sent out a series of disturbing tweets from November 12 to November 17, including one saying, “Gonna ask a Priest if I should become a husband or shoot up a synagogue and die.”
Call records show Brown and Mahrer communicated with each other on the phone, and on November 18 they went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the documents state. Surveillance footage showed that Brown was wearing a backpack that police later found contained a knife, a Swastika armband and a ski mask, the documents state.
The two men then met with a third person and, in a recorded phone call with a prison inmate, said they were driving to Pennsylvania to get a firearm, the indictment states. Brown sent Mahrer $650 and Mahrer then sent $700 to this third person, the documents say.
Later that night, surveillance footage shows Brown and Mahrer walking into the Upper West Side building where Mahrer lives, the documents say. Mahrer is seen on video wearing a camouflage backpack that police later recovered; the backpack contained a firearm, a large-capacity ammo feeding device and 19 rounds of ammunition, according to the documents.
This third person, Jamil Hakime, was arrested last Friday on charges of conspiracy to transport a firearm interstate, possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon and interstate transport of a firearm. He remains in federal custody after a detention hearing held the day he was arrested, according to court records. CNN has reached out to his court-appointed attorney for comment.
Brown and Mahrer are not named in the federal complaint and are not facing federal charges, but their identities were confirmed to CNN by a spokesperson for the Southern District of New York.
Hakime drove Mahrer and Brown in his Range Rover on November 18 to a house he owns in Pennsylvania where they obtained a gun and ammunition from him, the federal complaint alleges.
While in the car they spoke to someone on a recorded line from a state detention facility about the firearms purchase, federal and state prosecutors say. Hakime told the incarcerated individual that he “took over (his) spot” in their apartment building — what law enforcement says is a reference to his firearms trafficking activity, per the federal complaint.
Hakime eventually dropped the pair off at Mahrer’s home on the Upper West Side that night.
Mahrer’s family member discovered the firearm and ammunition in his bedroom soon after and reported it to law enforcement, according to the federal complaint. The family member voluntarily turned over the backpack to law enforcement officers at the apartment later that night.
Days later, Hakime was photographed leaving his apartment building with black garbage bags. The complaint alleges he was clearing out any evidence of his trafficking operation and planned to lay low at his Pennsylvania home after learning that Mahrer was “in trouble,” according to a recorded phone conversation cited in the complaint.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s John Miller, Brynn Gingras and Samantha Beech contributed to this report.