Both brothers indicted in Sacramento arson attacks

For the first time, federal officials have openly challenged arson suspect Benjamin Matthew Williams' account of a June 18 arson spree that devastated three Sacramento-area congregations.

Williams, 32, has claimed his brother, James Tyler Williams, 30, played no part in the crimes. His version is that he and several white supremacist cohorts he met at a survivalist convention plotted and carried out the attack.

Until last Friday's federal indictments against the brothers, officials had declined comment. Each of the men was charged with 13 counts.

"We could and did [retrace] their movements" in the days before and after the arsons, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Lapham told the Bulletin in a phone interview. "And no, we don't believe Matthew Williams' statements are consistent with our findings."

The indictment by a federal grand jury in Sacramento followed many months of speculation. The men could each face sentences of 175 years in prison if convicted on all counts. They could also be levied with fines of up to $250,000.

The brothers "did conspire to destroy and close synagogues…to thereby provoke further incidents of violence and to intimidate, terrorize and harm Jews," the indictment stated.

The indictment claimed both brothers planned the "overt attacks" by compiling a list of Jewish agencies and individuals. They then shopped for supplies for the homemade firebombs June 17 at a WalMart in Redding and set the blazes themselves at each of the three congregations, the indictment stated.

"On or about July 1, 1999, defendants Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams purchased items at a WalMart store located in Yuba City, Calif., for use in future arson attacks," it stated. In the early morning hours of July 2, the brothers allegedly broke into the Country Club Medical Center and torched the Choice Medical Clinic.

The men have been charged with four counts of arson, conspiracy to commit arson, three counts of destruction of religious property, interference with commerce by violence and four counts of using fire to commit a felony.

The men have already been charged in the shooting deaths of a gay couple whose bodies were found July 2. Shasta County District Attorney MacGregor Scott is seeking the death penalty in that case.

Benjamin Matthew Williams has seized the opportunity to air his views in numerous jailhouse interviews with reporters.

He eagerly claimed responsibility for both crimes, citing a biblical mandate. Reportedly, he has been sporting a Hitler-style mustache and announced his intention to wear a Nazi uniform to court.

"The whole time he's been behind bars he's been trying to get his hateful message across," said Jonathan Bernstein, the director of the Anti-Defamation League's S.F.-based Central Pacific region. "He likes the media attention."

James Tyler Williams has refused all interviews.

"I am not concerned with the natures of these individuals," said Rabbi Stuart Rosen, spiritual leader of Kenesset Israel Torah Center, which was destroyed in the firebombing. "I'm just very impressed by the coordination of law enforcement agencies. I am grateful that they take these crimes seriously and worked so meticulously."

Although Rosen said the law enforcement agencies put "the best of the best" on the case, not everyone contacted by the Bulletin expressed gratitude or patience for the painstaking pace of the investigation.

Numerous reporters at a press conference in Sacramento last Friday asked why the U.S. attorney waited so long to charge the two suspects, given the plethora of evidence linking them to the crimes.

"We had four crime scenes with four sets of forensic evidence," Lapham said. "We had to corroborate evidence found at Congregation Beth Shalom with evidence found at the abortion clinic. More importantly, the suspects were already in jail so there was no hurry to get them off the street."

Investigators waded through hundreds of tips, many which did not pan out, he said.

But others say the crimes, which alarmed justice officials, received a rare degree of scrutiny from the office of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

In an unusual move, the Justice Department in Washington reviewed the case before the grand jury met for the last time — allegedly because of possible links between hate groups and a wave of incidents last summer.

Bernstein and others say a third person appears to have participated in the arsons, but Lapham would say only that federal officials are "not closing the door" to more arrests.

Bernstein came to his Northern California post from Texas, where he was involved with the investigation of the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. by three white supremacists.

Still, he said, "I have frankly never seen anything like this [investigation]. There was so much coordination and cooperation between all the agencies involved."

But relief gave way to introspection for Bernstein, who spoke to the press Monday at Sacramento's Golden State Museum, where an exhibit called "Anti-Semitism Past and Present — Images from a History of Prejudice and Persecution" was slated to open.

"I feel like the Williams brothers are being demonized, which is understandable," Bernstein said. "At the same time, it's an easy out. It takes the burden off of us to examine how hatred starts in our community. We need to remember we can play a significant role in fighting hatred and anti-Semitism."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.