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A Texas man pleaded guilty on Friday to arson and to committing a hate crime for allegedly setting the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Austin, Texas, on fire in October 2021, the Department of Justice announced Friday, amid a string of antisemitic attacks and hate speech.
Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 20, pleaded guilty in a federal court in San Antonio, Texas, to all counts, according to a DOJ statement.
Prosecutors claim Sechriest had gone to the synagogue to “scout out a target,” according to journal entries found at his residence.
Seschriest had been charged by a federal grand jury in March 2022 with several civil rights violations, including one count of arson, one count of damage to religious property and one count of setting fire to commit a federal crime, and is scheduled to be sentenced on June 23.He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza called the fire a “hate-filled” crime intended to “intimidate and undermine the wellbeing of the entire Jewish community.”
The fire at the synagogue was one of multiple antisemitic attacks, including the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 as well as a January 2022 kidnapping during Saturday morning temple service at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in which a Jewish rabbi was taken hostage.
Federal officials claim Sechriest, who was 18 at the time and a member of the Texas State Guard, set the synagogue on fire around 9 p.m. on the night of Halloween in 2021. Surveillance footage later revealed him carrying a five-gallon container and toilet paper into the synagogue’s sanctuary, where the DOJ says he started the fire before quickly running away to a vehicle parked outside. FBI agents later searched Sechriest’s house after tracing his vehicle, finding a receipt for the container and journal entries where Sechriest documented his “hatred of and contempt for persons of the Jewish faith.” One of those journal entries included the admission: “I set a synagogue on fire,” the Austin American-Statesman reported.
$200,000. That’s how much damage the fire caused, according to the Justice Department, which confirmed no one was hurt in the fire.
Recent antisemitic incidents in Texas and around the country have drawn widespread condemnation, including from President Joe Biden, who condemned a series of attacks in New York City, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles as “despicable, unconscionable” and “un-American” in a May 2021 statement (Biden issued another statement last December, calling on political leaders to start “rejecting antisemitism wherever it hides”). Simone Talma Flowers, the director of the Interfaith Council of Central Texas, also condemned the fire at the Austin synagogue, saying, “hateful acts of intimidation to incite violence are unacceptable, and we will not be silent.” Following a series of high-profile antisemitic comments in recent months primarily on social media—including posts from controversial artist Kanye West and a link to an anti-Jewish documentary posted by NBA star Kyrie Irving—second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, said there was an “epidemic of hate” and that “people are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud, they are screaming them.”
‘Scout a target’: Suspect in Congregation Beth Israel arson kept diary, feds say (Austin American-Statesman)
Texas man pleads guilty to setting fire to Austin synagogue (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Central Texas faith leaders and politicians rebuke antisemitic incidents after fire outside Austin synagogue (Texas Tribune)