When a Crime Is Not a Hate Crime

An upstate New York assault that morphed into something weirder

The former Lisle Congregational Church overlooks the west bank of the Tioughnioga River in the Southern Tier of New York. It was built in 1822 by some of the founders of the town, and is the oldest religious edifice in Broome County. It is also the oldest religious building still standing west of the Catskills, built when the town served as a manufacturing center for the early wave of settlers moving into the fertile Finger Lakes region.

From the early 20th century until the era of globalization, a few big companies further down the Tioughnioga valley anchored the local economy. Endicott-Johnson, a shoe manufacturer, was known for espousing a generous kind of Fordist welfare capitalism, and IBM had its first manufacturing plant in Endicott. Today, IBM is an IT company and our actual computers are made by the Chinese, a transition that partly accounts for why the locals have had among the steepest slides into post-industrial malaise anywhere in the United States.

Along with that decline has come despair and viciousness. In four days driving up and down the valley the only children to be seen were at McDonalds and the visitation room at the county jail. The Lisle Congregational Church has been used as a private residence since the 1950s, and in 2017 was sold again to its current owner for less than $40,000. On the evening of March 23, 2018, the man known by Arthur Nash was attacked in his home.

The man who pled guilty to attacking him is Thomas Sessions, whose last name ties him to a notorious family with deep roots in the area. His brother Travis, who according to police reports was at the church that night, was driving the car that killed a man in 2009. The Sessions are pariahs of the county due to a reputation for theft and drugs, reminiscent of the Loomis Gang that terrorized the Southern Tier in the 19th century, but with meth instead of horse-thievery. The patrons of a small bar in Marathon around quitting time on March 5th all knew the Sessions, and they didn’t like them.

One cannot overstate the reaction of visceral hatred everyone in the bar had for the name of Earl Sessions especially. “Shoot him on sight,” is what one said, and another claimed he used to sell meth on a corner around the street in Marathon. I asked about the rumors that he had been an informant, which they had also heard, and they agreed it was curious how often he managed to avoid the law. And yet, these people who had an extreme and probably justified dislike of the father, not to mention a distinct prejudice that “Sessions is Sessions,” had doubts about details of the attack. They didn’t think Tom would have struck him from behind, and they didn’t think he would have used a weapon. Thomas liked to brawl and he liked to drink, but he would hit you squarely from the front. “Put the father in instead,” another patron said.

Thomas Sessions was supposed to go to trial on March 4, 2018 for attempted murder. The Friday before the trial he took a plea deal for five years plus time served, which would require him to admit to stabbing Nash and forego his right to an appeal. Judge Joseph Cawley told Sessions that if he tried anything in between, he’ll throw the book at him. The prosecutor Geoffrey Rossi declined to comment for this story.

When Nash related the story of what happened, he described himself as both the victim of a hate crime and the victim of a hate crime hoax. Nash’s real name is Nash Saul Rosenblatt -- though it is not clear that anyone in town knew this, since he went by Arthur Nash -- and he has led people to believe that he was the victim of a neo-Nazi conspiracy of intimidation, violence and stalking. The alleged assailant, a fan of tattoos, has ink of a Confederate flag, an anarchy symbol, and, briefly though it had been covered over at the time of the attack, a swastika tattoo on his arm.

The night of the alleged attack Sessions came to his door and told him his truck had engine trouble and asked to use the phone. “Without warning,” Nash said, “he pulled a hunting blade and stabbed me in the throat, permanently severing my facial nerves. As I went down, he continued stabbing.”

When the New York State Police arrived on the scene an officer -- unidentified in police reports -- showed Nash a single photograph from a birthday party Sessions and his brother Travis had attended, and asked him if he recognized them. He said he did. Later they presented him with a normal six-person photo line-up, and Nash identified Thomas again.

Several months after the alleged attack, on August 30, Nash, according to reports compiled by the New York State police, vandalized the home of a man who had done contracting work at his house, spray-painting “White Pride,” and “It’s Out There” on the man’s garage. When he turned himself in several days later, it was found that Nash had two outstanding warrants two counties over. He claims he was framed and that this is a hate hoax, designed to destroy his credibility as a witness against Tom Sessions. Locals agree that arranging something like this is not out of the realm of possibility for Earl Sessions, who knows the contractor, a man named Michael Benjamin Laskey.

Laskey had been invited earlier that August to do handyman work at Nash’s house. According to a source present, Nash was upset with the work they were doing and began to get agitated. The situation ended, according to Nash, when he “got him out at the end of a shotgun.” According to Nash, Laskey then “devised a plan which involved writing or painting the words ‘White Power’ on his own garage then calling the police and telling them I did it.”

Upon seeing more of the investigative documents from the case, it became clear that Nash’s version of events the night of the attack was significantly flawed and misleading. In his account to the author he claimed to have been stabbed multiple times in the throat and in the head. This does not match either the crime scene photos or the 911 call transcript.

The crime scene photos show drops of blood in several places around the church, but multiple stab wounds with a hunting knife to the throat and head would produce not drops, but pools. Nash’s version of what happens increases in brutality each time he tells it; first to the 911 operator, then to the police, then to a grand jury, and finally to me.

“... Home invasion. He broke my jaw,” are the first words of the 911 transcript. The operator asks for the address. “My jaw is broke,” Nash reiterates, then gives his address before saying again, “He broke my jaw.”

Later in the call, the operator asks if there were any weapons. “I didn’t see any weapons,” he tells the operator twice, adding that, “he slugged me when I invited him in.” This is quite different than the version he first told me.

Records show that the New York State Police also interviewed someone who was called at 12:12, just after the alleged incident by a girl identified as Nash’s daughter, who told him that Nash had been “hit.”

By 2:35 A.M., however, evidence indicates Nash was certain he was stabbed. A police report filed by Investigator Christopher Cody shows someone received a text message from him that read, “A guy in a white truck stabbed me in the throat tonight because he didn’t like being motioned to stop speeding.”

In Nash’s testimony to the grand jury, he said, “as I was trying to dial the number for the fourth time, that’s when he stabbed me,” though he says later in response to a question about whether the sensation of the strike, that it was “just a real heavy, heavy blow.”

Nash was hospitalized for several days and his jaw was broken, he was certainly struck by something, but a blow with a hunting knife strong enough to break his jaw probably would have killed him, or at least produced a lot of blood.

At this point it may sound like poor form to be questioning the account of a crime victim. But Nash’s subsequent actions and interventions in the criminal case are extremely inappropriate. Five days after the crime, NYSP Investigator Cody advised Investigator Todd Rosenkrans that Nash wanted to pursue the case as a hate crime, which the police declined to do. This is the first time Nash is identified as Jewish in investigative documents.

Nash sent me three different photographs of Thomas Sessions from Facebook. Two showed the swastika tattoo on his arm, and the third showed a tattoo on his neck. The arm tattoo is genuine, though he had covered it up by a grenade tattoo well before he allegedly attacked Nash. The second, neck tattoo looked like this:

Numerous residents who knew Thomas well could not recall him ever having a tattoo like this, and no pictures from his facebook show a neck tattoo at all. Sitting across from him in the Broome County jail, he had no neck tattoos of any kind. Either this was some sort of drawing, or I was shown a doctored photo.

Nash seems to have posted multiple alerts offering a reward for information on Sessions. One was sent by email:

Another ad was posted to Craigslist with similar information:

A response to this ad elicited a reply by someone who knew the investigating officer on the case, Todd Rosenkrans, but was not in law enforcement:

Moreover, people close to the case, or who had taken to defending Thomas online, began to receive harassing and sexually charged messages from someone identifying himself as Jeff Wright. Earl Sessions received the following message from Wright:

Wright also made public comments on Thomas Sessions’ Facebook profile, though those have been deleted. For example:

A friend of Thomas also received threatening messages:

Prior to the alleged attack, Thomas was living intermittently with his father in Arizona. He came back to Lisle in late 2017, and returned after the incident. Nash portrays this as a fugitive taking flight, but that is by no means clear, since there was no indictment against him when he returned to Arizona. Nash admitted to me that he had a role in tracking Thomas there. In an email, he said “Then they didn't try to catch Thomas Sessions in spite of knowing roughly where he was  -- I had to find him myself. Even after I pinpointed his location, the State Police gave the Arizona fugitive squad the wrong address, which gave Thomas a chance to change locations.”

These are all highly irregular interventions in the case which deserve serious scrutiny, given that Nash’s identification is what the whole case hangs upon.

At the same time, it is not out of the question that the graffiti incident was arranged to destroy Nash’s credibility as a witness. “I believe there is some concerted efforts being made to tarnish my name in advance of the Sessions attempted murder trial,” he said in an email. He may not be wrong about this. The two witnesses are Laskey’s wife and a neighbor. They had a television camera outside their home that should have caught him in the act, but it was not recording at the time.

But Nash’s initial account to me of the graffiti incident was also incomplete. He said the graffiti read “White Power,” but police reports indicate there was another message also, “It’s out there.”

There are a few things that this might mean. Laskey did a year-long stint in Florida prison 14 years ago on forgery charges. Police reports indicate that Laskey believed this was a reference to his criminal record. Another possible meaning might be that Nash intended to draw attention to whatever political views might be inferred by the presence of a Confederate flag on Laskey’s garage door. Nash, as we have seen, had been making these sorts of inferences for some time now in his sleuthing around.

It must be conceded that if one wanted to argue that this crime was motivated by the capricious bigotries of small-town hicks, it would not be hard to do so. As a Virginian, it seemed extremely odd that there were more rebel flags displayed, either the normal way, or on bodies, or in social media pictures, than anywhere I’d been in the actual South. When I asked someone close to Thomas why, they explained that it wasn’t a racist thing, that it represented a different kind of relationship between the states, more like the 13 colonies instead of the federal government. One would not hear such a sophisticated explanation from, say, a progressive college student. But there is another reason, a more simple and telling one: wearing ink of the rebel flag is a way of saying you don’t care what others think of you. That you have no faith in the system. I suspect this is a more likely explanation for Thomas’s tattoos than him being a Confederate, a Nazi, and an anarchist.

The simplest explanation for what went on that night is this. According to police reports Nash had gained a reputation for videotaping cars that passed his home, and for motioning them to slow down. He did this to Travis Sessions who stopped and tried to provoke a fight. Nash claims he pulled a shotgun on him and chased him off. Later, Thomas went over and clocked the man who drew on his brother, breaking his jaw. This version of events has not been proven, but it’s a tidy explanation with a clear motive. It also isn’t a hate crime.

While something definitely happened to Nash that night, and it is not out of the question that he is right about the hate hoax, that the graffiti incident was engineered, there are other reasons Nash makes an extremely flawed witness, and raises the question of whether he is some sort of informant. He pled nolo contendere to a battery charge in 2001, and since has been stopped numerous times for possessing a firearm in violation of a domestic violence injunction, but never found guilty. Volusia County court records also indicate that in 2015 he was involved in two violent incidents, one involving a law enforcement officer, but again no charges were pressed. In the less than a year he lived in Lisle, he was involved in at least two incidents in which he ended up pulling a gun on someone, and when he was arrested himself for criminal mischief, he had two other outstanding warrants in Sullivan County. Moreover, in the crime scene photos there is no photograph of the shotgun, but there is one of a handgun.

After raising some of these questions with Nash, he threatened this reporter with both a lawsuit and criminal charges, saying I violated his privacy by sending emails, adding “we are bringing criminal charges for aggravated harassment and you've been fairly warned.” He claims that raising these concerns amounts to blaming the victim. But he is not just a victim, he is also a defendant.

The specter of meth hangs over this story, and the entire region, like a pall. Twice in reporting this story, locals suggested satanic activity was involved, once to describe the Sessions family and their long reputation of violence, drugs, and criminality, and once in relation to Nash. The second person had seen the crime scene photos, and the unusual way in which he decorated the oldest religious edifice in Broome County. A half-wall separates the nave into an entryway and living room, and upon that wall Nash had hung two circus tapestries, one depicting a two-headed baby, and the other cannibals. In front of these tapestries were taxidermied two-headed calves. These are probably creations of Takeshi Yamada, the “rogue taxidermist.”

It’s Nash’s property which he can decorate how he chooses, but it isn’t conceding too much to wonder what he was doing there in the first place. People don’t just move to Lisle, certainly not people in the “museum business,” as he told the grand jury. If he is truly an innocent victim, who came to the area for a quiet life, but found himself embroiled in small-town violence, then it is his own subsequent actions that call his reliability into question.

But his past suggests that he has been an informant of some kind, and it is also possible that this is the reason he came to Lisle. The individuals who came to Nash’s house under the auspices of contracting work are, based on conversations with locals, not the top flight of contractors in Broome County, and most of them have various connections to drugs. Nash was asked if he had any contact with Investigator Cody prior to the alleged attack, the one transferred out of the area last summer, but he did not respond.

The fact that Travis Sessions, who was there that night, was not even arrested raises the question of whether he is an informant as well, and Earl Sessions is thought by everyone to have also been an informant in years past. It may be that the only major figure in this drama who isn’t an informant is the one sitting in jail. One gets the impression that a plea deal benefits everyone in this situation, given the missteps by the police in identification, the other Sessions’ need to keep secrets, and Nash’s own issues as a witness. So much the better for everyone if it morphs into a story about neo-Nazi persecution. Nash has subsequently had legal trouble in Florida.

A note on sources: In the course of reporting this story, several sources received threats or apparent threats from an unidentified person. They are kept anonymous or referred to as "locals" for that reason.