By Jenna Deangelis, Jennifer Bisram
Updated on: November 19, 2022 / 11:43 pm / CBS New York
Courtesy Screenshot CBS News: Roz Rothstein (right) CEO and co-founder, StandWithUs
NEW YORK — Two men who allegedly made threats against synagogues in New York City were arrested late Friday night.
Twenty-one-year-old Christopher Brown, of Aquebogue, and 22-year-old Matthew Mahrer, of the Upper West Side, were taken into custody at Penn Station around 11:30 p.m.
Police say investigators uncovered a developing threat to the Jewish community Friday and worked swiftly to identify those behind it. We're told a bulletin went out to law enforcement seeking the men for questioning.
Police sources say the threats were made to target unspecified synagogues in New York City on a computer.
Two MTA Police officers on patrol in Penn Station late Friday night saw the suspects, who were allegedly armed.
“This could have been a Pittsburgh Tree of Life situation, this could have been a Buffalo Tops supermarket type of situation, and thankfully it was averted,” said Mitchell Silber, executive director of Community Security Initiative.
The CSI was put in place by the UJA Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council of New York in the wake of attacks to better protect the Jewish community. A team of experts scour the internet for threats.
“Yesterday morning, they detected an individual on Twitter who was talking about carrying out violent attacks against the Jewish synagogue non-specific in New York. We also got the threat from a few other organizations as well,” Silber said.
He says the FBI and NYPD were immediately alerted, hours later leading to those arrests.
“It's a horrifying development to think that this individual who was armed and could have done incredible damage was walking the streets. Thankfully, law enforcement stepped in quickly and was able to apprehend them before anybody was hurt,” said Scott Richman, Anti-Defamation League regional director for New York and New Jersey.
CBS2's Jenna DeAngelis spoke with Jewish leaders who pointed out this comes on the heels of threats to synagogues in New Jersey earlier this month.
“Everybody I'm sure that knows the story is grateful to NYPD for their incredible vigilance and their great, great work ... That this happened is unfortunately not a big surprise. We're seeing a rise in antisemitism, a rise in attacks, especially in New York and also around the world. So we need to be vigilant,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an education organization that fights antisemitism.
“ADL does an audit of antisemitic incidents, and that audit shows that antisemitic incidents have quadrupled in this country since 2013, and nowhere are the number of antisemitic incidents as high as in New York state,” Richman said.
It's a community on high alert but tonight, protected by the collective efforts of those who fight hate and those who tackle crime.
“The system worked, the shield worked and the community should take heart," Richman said.
Police sources say neither suspect has an arrest history in New York City and there was not a detailed plan with a specific target.
CBS2's Jennifer Bisram spoke exclusively with Brown's family about the arrest.
They say he's mentally ill and needs help.
“He's not a bad person. He's just very sick, you know, and he needs help,” said Brown's sister, Kayla Brown. "Last time I talked to my brother was last night. He said he was in Pennsylvania, I'm not sure why. And then he said the FBI called him. He wasn't really sure why. He was confused, and then radio silence since then.”
She tells CBS2 her brother has never said anything negative against any religious group that's she aware of.
“My brother is very sick, and he is unmedicated. You know, when we were kids, we dealt with a lot. He never dealt with that,” Kayla Brown said.
Authorities say he was carrying weapons, a swastika armband and a ski mask when he was arrested. It's unclear why.
“We were always worried that he would hurt himself. My brother would never hurt anybody. He would hurt himself before hurting anybody else,” Kayla Brown said.
We're told Brown is schizophrenic. His family is hoping he gets the mental help he needs.
“I really wanna try and talk with him and tell him, ‘Listen, you need to get help. It's gone too far. You need help. You're hurting yourself and others and everyone out there that cares about you,’” Kayla Brown said.
Police tell us there aren't any known threats to any religious groups or institutions in our area. Still, they will be doing extra patrols.
Brown is being charged with making a terroristic threat, aggravated harassment and criminal possession of a weapon. Mahrer is charged with criminal possession of a weapon. Both are expected to face a judge sometime this weekend.
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