Teen in Texas charged with allegedly setting a synagogue on fire

National / World

AUSTIN, Texas (ABC) — An 18-year-old college student in Texas faces a federal arson charge over a fire set to a synagogue in Austin, Texas, on Halloween.

Franklin Barrett Sechriest, a student at Texas State University and a former member of the Texas State Guard, was arrested on Nov. 12 and remains in custody at Travis County Jail. 

Investigators determined that he intentionally lit the fire at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Oct. 31. Sechriest was caught after allegedly being seen on the synagogue’s security camera. The footage shows him walking up the handicap ramp at the synagogue, holding a green container that appeared to be a five-gallon jug of lighter fluid and a roll of toilet paper. The charging documents say there was $25,000 worth of damage and that no one else appeared to be present. Immediately after lighting the fire, he is seen running away from the building toward his car.

Investigators issued a search warrant for his residence on Nov. 10

Upon searching his home, agents allegedly discovered a calendar with an anti-Black epithet written on it and a journal containing some concerning statements and phrases. An entry on Oct. 28 allegedly includes the statement “scout out target.” Two days later, on Halloween, his entry allegedly reads: “I set a synagogue on fire.”

Agents also found a notebook in a separate parked car inside the garage. Notes included “(N-word) appreciation class” and “dress normally for once.”

An American Express Card was also located and was allegedly used to purchase a five-gallon fuel utility jug.

When FBI agents searched Sechriest’s 2021 Jeep Cherokee, they discovered 33-ounce glass bottles, three 320ounce bottles of lighter fluid, a lighter, and stormproof matches. These ingredients are “consistent with materials that can be used and combined to produce destructive devices known as Molotov cocktails,” according to the complaint. His car also allegedly contained several hateful stickers, including a propaganda-style sticker with swastikas on it, reading “Kill them all.

According to court documents, Sechriest wrote a journal entry after the incident claiming to track any media reports about the fire to the synagogue.

“Arson at a sacred place of worship shakes the very foundations of our society,” said Ashley Hoff, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. “This Office strongly condemns the intentional act of violence alleged in the complaint and will vigorously prosecute this type of conduct to the fullest extent possible.”

If convicted, Sechriest will face up to 20 years in prison.

Carla Hill, the Associate Director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said, “It’s not representative of the community as a whole. It’s a few bad apples,” Hill said. “That’s creating this level of fear within the community, and something like an arson, of a place of worship, is particularly alarming. And it just creates a huge sense of fear within the community. And that’s why it’s always important to speak out against it.”

A Texas State University spokesperson said that the college was aiding the investigation. “Our university decries this hateful act of bigotry and violence, and all the anti-Semitic events perpetrated recently in Austin, San Antonio, and San Marcos,” they said. “The Texas State University community stands in solidarity with our Jewish students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who have been impacted.”

Senior Rabbi Steven Folberg, who has served at the synagogue for over 30 years, expressed relief over the arrest. “There’s a certain amount of relief for people in the Jewish community that someone who is accused of perpetrating such a violent and bigoted act is in custody.”

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