18-year-old college student arrested in Austin synagogue arson

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The aftermath of a fire at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas on Sunday October 31. Photo: Austin Fire Department

An 18-year-old Texas State University student faces felony charges for allegedly setting fire to a synagogue in Austin, Texas.

Franklin Barrett Sechriest was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of using a liquid accelerator to start a fire at the entrance to Beth Israel congregation on Oct. 31, causing some $ 25,000 in damage, the fire department said. Austin.

In an arrest affidavit, investigators said surveillance footage captured a dark-colored Jeep entering a nearby parking lot on the night of the fire, with the driver then exiting the vehicle holding what appeared to be a jug of fire. ‘gasoline. Images from four separate camera angles then captured the ignition of the blaze, including an interior view of the Beth Israel Shrine showing flames running across the ground.

The suspect was then reportedly seen returning to the Jeep and walking away, as smoke and light from the fire can be seen in the frame.

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The vehicle’s license plate then led authorities to Sechriest’s home in San Marcos, Texas, where he lives with his mother.

The 18-year-old is charged with arson in the first degree, for having started a fire with “the intention to damage or destroy a place of assembly or of worship”.

Beth Israel Chief Rabbi Steve Folberg released a statement Wednesday thanking the Austin Fire Department, the Austin Police Department and the FBI.

“It relieves us to learn of this arrest, but we remain vigilant,” Folberg said. “In central Texas and beyond, we are seeing an increase in attacks against Jews. We denounce all acts of fanaticism and violence, especially those motivated by blind hatred of one of the proud and distinctive communities that enrich our civic life. We will remain strong and vigilant in the continued work of justice, security and peace for ourselves and all of our neighbors. “

The Reformed congregation had told members in a letter Tuesday that the damage to the synagogue was “much more extensive” than originally thought, including extensive smoke damage, and that services Shabbat would be held elsewhere for the time being.

The arson attempt came amid a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the Austin area, prompting the passage of a city council resolution condemning “all hate speech and violent actions that cast blame, encourage racism or discrimination, or harm the Jewish community ”.

Recent incidents included the vandalism of a local high school with Nazi symbols, a banner hanging from an overpass that read “Vax the Jews”, the public display of anti-Semitic posters on a local street, and Jewish residents receiving letters. anti-Semites blaming them for the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas State University, where Sechriest was enrolled, told the local KXAN news that he would continue to assist authorities in their ongoing investigation, and that the school “denounces this heinous act of sectarianism and violence and all recent anti-Semitic events in Austin, San Antonio and San Marcos.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has released a solidarity rally scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Texas Capitol South Steps.

“Hate has no place in Austin”, Adler noted on Twitter, calling it “an opportunity to come together and heal recent anti-Semitic acts in our city”.

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