Jews, others dispute self-proclaimed arsonists story

Benjamin Matthew Williams has told reporters that he spearheaded a June 18 arson attack on three Sacramento-area synagogues — but virtually nobody believes his story, including Jewish leaders who heard his rambling taped confession.

"It certainly has seemed clear from the evidence for months now that he is central to the case," said Rabbi Matthew Friedman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, whose sanctuary sustained considerable damage in the attack.

"But I think he is trying to puff up his story to create the image of a vast network," he added. "He's trying to milk this thing for all he can get."

The 31-year-old Williams last week offered details of the arson in a phone call to Jon Baird, a Sacramento broadcast journalist, and to Sacramento Bee reporters during a jailhouse interview.

Williams claimed that his brother, James Tyler Williams, 29, had no involvement in the arsons, which caused a minimum $1 million in damage. Instead, he said, he had the help of eight white supremacists.

"To hear these people spouting this stuff — it's a bit strange, and yes, a bit scary," said Friedman, who heard Baird's tape along with Eden Mendel of the Anti-Defamation League Central Pacific region.

Investigators have told Jewish leaders in Sacramento that they don't buy Williams' claim that his brother had no involvement in the arsons.

"It's just a little too convenient," one high-ranking investigator told the Bulletin. "At this point, he knows he's going down, and he wants to save his brother. But it flies in the face of things he said right after they were arrested that very specifically implicated his brother."

The brothers are currently awaiting trial for shooting Gary Matson and his longtime companion, Winfield Scott Mowder, as the men slept. The bodies of the men were found in their blood-soaked bed July 2. At a pretrial hearing last Friday, a Shasta County Superior Court judge granted a defense request to delay the trial for 90 days.

Although the elder brother has failed repeatedly in his bid to get paid to talk about the arsons, he has used a series of interviews with reporters to inch coyly toward taking full responsibility for the blazes.

On Jan. 6, Williams told Baird, a reporter for KOVR-TV Channel 13 in Sacramento, he pulled off the arsons with the aid of eight white supremacists all trying to curry the favor of the National Alliance. The anti-Semitic hate group demands that potential members commit violent acts to prove their loyalty.

Williams claims that he met a member of the National Alliance at a "Y2K Preparedness Expo" in Sacramento last spring. The two men then plotted an arson attack on the synagogues and a Sacramento abortion clinic, enlisting the aid of seven others who were known to Williams and his National Alliance cohort, but not to each other.

The deal was that if Williams was caught, "I was on my own," he said.

He said that teams of three set fires at each synagogue, including Congregation Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center. The men then went their separate ways and he never saw any of them again, Williams claimed.

But in a briefing last Friday morning with Jewish leaders, agents scoffed at Williams' allegations.

"They think he keeps doing these interviews to protect his younger brother," said Jonathan Bernstein, executive director of the ADL Central Pacific region, who attended the briefing.

Agents believe there is one other person involved, Bernstein said. However, "they are looking to see if they have enough on him to file charges."

But whatever Williams says in his freewheeling interviews can, and most likely will, be used against him at trial, according to Shasta County District Attorney McGregor Scott.

"His attorneys have made the suggestion to him [that he stop talking to reporters], but he has declined to accept that advice," Scott said.

In a follow-up interview with a Sacramento Bee reporter that was published last Friday, Williams said he felt nervous but excited as he jacked open the door of Congregation B'nai Israel.

"I knew I was crossing the Rubicon," he is quoted in the Bee article. "It was the cusp of my life where I was putting faith in my beliefs."

Inflicting the damage was so intoxicating, he was "emboldened" to murder Matson and Mowder, whose homosexuality represented an affront to "God's law," he said.

Responding to the confession, Friedman said, "It does point out one individual can do a lot of damage." Whenever an interview appears in the media, "the anxiety level spikes, like right through the roof" for congregants eager to see indictments handed down.

But for Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Williams' claims are moot since "the right guys are behind bars."

"There's been a lot of scuttlebutt since the very beginning of this investigation," Cooper said. "Let's have confidence in law enforcement. I don't mind waiting. The guy's behind bars."

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Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.