Sacramento Jews riled by report that arsonists had help

The Sacramento Bee published a report Nov. 24 quoting an unnamed "top law enforcement source" who said Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and James Tyler Williams, 29, met with members of a hate group to plan the attacks.

Three Sacramento-area synagogues were fire-bombed on June 18 and an area women's clinic was torched on July 2.

"There's no way these two acted alone," the Bee quoted him as saying. "They had to have help."

The report sent shock waves through the Sacramento community — and FBI headquarters.

"I certainly want to know more about that and I plan to follow up," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "The community wants answers and I plan to press for those answers."

Investigators already have determined that Matthew Williams — as he is known — attended a Sacramento "Preparedness Expo," a traveling event that began in Salt Lake City 10 years ago. Displaying freeze-dried foods, power generators and guides on guerrilla warfare, the expo includes such presenters such as John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana.

He would have had ample opportunity to make the acquaintance of many white supremacists at the event.

"I'm anxious to see some indictments," said Steinberg, who is a member of Congregation B'nai Israel, whose library was destroyed in the June conflagration. "People want justice and I share that feeling. I don't want to overreact, but I think the community's need for answers should be addressed, even if just in the form of a briefing."

Steve Haberfeld, president of the now-homeless Kenesset Israel Torah Center, which was destroyed in the June blaze, said, "I don't know what they're waiting for."

As the congregation scrambles to retain its members while securing a permanent home, which is expected to take more than two years, "we talk about it all the time," he added. "It has eased people's minds a bit to know these people are in custody."

FBI Special Agent Nick Rossi dismissed the source's claim as "speculation," and said he doubted whether the speaker was, in fact, a "top level" official at all.

Physical evidence linking the brothers to the firebombing is raining upon Shasta County District Attorney MacGregor Scott, who is prosecuting the two men for the murder of a gay couple.

A federal team of investigators has supplied the prosecutor with a pipeline of information, to be unleashed during the penalty phase of the capital case against the Williams brothers.

Meanwhile, as news of the growing mound of evidence hits the wires, federal agents have suggested they will soon announce an arrest of the Williams brothers in all four arsons.

"About a week ago, they told us they were giving serious consideration to filing charges in all these cases, whatever that means," said Lt. Bradd McDannold of the Shasta County Sheriff's Department major crimes division.

"Lab analysis can take time to process," Scott said when asked how it is that new evidence continues to be unearthed five months after the fact. "And new witnesses materialize."

One of those new witnesses is a someone who allegedly saw the elder Williams casing Congregation B'nai Israel in the hours before it was set ablaze.

FBI testing on a crowbar that was seized from the brothers' home revealed paint chips that matched paint from the doorway of the women's clinic that was pried open on July 2, when the Choice Medical Group was firebombed.

Scott said he is confident that Shasta County Superior Court Judge James Ruggeiro will permit him to introduce such evidence during the penalty phase of the murder trial.

"Obviously, we are going to cooperate with investigators fully," said the FBI's Rossi. "We want to make sure both cases are as strong as they can be."

The men are charged in the shooting deaths of William Matson and Winfield Scott Mowder, who were found in their blood-soaked bed July 2. Matthew Williams said he alone killed the men because they were gay. He claimed to have been doing God's work.

Other officials close to the arson investigation scoffed at the notion that the brothers were part of a larger effort.

"I think [FBI agents] are acting in an abundance of caution," said a member of the prosecutorial team who asked to remain anonymous.

Edging closer than ever before to admitting the brothers are the FBI's prime suspects, Rossi said, "Since the beginning of this case, we have explored whether there were others [besides the Williams brothers] involved." But, he added, "that's just one focus."

A capital murder trial includes two phases: In the first, a jury determines guilt or innocence; the second is to determine the penalty if the defendant is found guilty.

"During the penalty phase, we are certainly allowed to present evidence of other violent acts," MacGregor said. That would include any proof that the men would be likely to commit similar acts again if they had the opportunity.

And, because it is a capital murder trial, as FBI investigators process physical evidence, "they pass it on to us," Scott said.

Defense attorneys may also present testimony that points to mitigating circumstances.

"In a capital case, we really bend over backwards to be as fair as possible," he said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.