Spectators at Sacramento hearing see arson suspect as arrogant

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For Rabbi Matthew Friedman, seeing Benjamin Matthew Williams was like "looking at evil."

A sober quiet filled the U.S. District Court in Sacramento Tuesday afternoon as Williams, 31, and his brother James Tyler Williams, 30, were arraigned on 13 federal counts related to a June 1999 arson spree that damaged three Sacramento-area synagogues and an abortion clinic.

The elder Williams, shorn and sporting a Hitler-style mustache, glared contemptuously at spectators.

Less than 10 feet away sat Friedman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. Beth Shalom is one of three synagogues the brothers stand accused of firebombing.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds read the charges and asked each brother several questions. Lawyers for the two brothers entered their pleas — both pleaded innocent — and requested a jury trial. Within minutes, the hearing was over.

Benjamin Matthew Williams answered the judge's questions "with so much arrogance and contempt," Friedman said. "It was a little eerie to be that close to someone with that much hate in his heart."

Mark Carrel, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Sacramento, agreed.

"Matthew Williams was certainly very arrogant, and in fact, appeared very proud to be there," he said.

The innocent pleas surprised some observers since the elder Williams has cheerfully proclaimed his guilt and touted his anti-Semitic, anti-gay views in media interviews. However, a magistrate judge does not have the authority to receive any plea other than innocent.

Sitting with Friedman and Carrel in the eighth-story courtroom were Rabbi Brad Bloom of Sacramento's Congregation B'nai Israel, which also was torched in the attack. Nearby were the brother and sister-in-law of Gary Matson, who was found slain with his longtime companion July 1 in Shasta County. The Williams brothers have been charged with murder in their deaths.

This afternoon, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. will preside over a more substantive follow-up hearing in Sacramento related to the arson attacks.

But by then, the Williams brothers will be long gone. They waived their right to appear today so they could return to Shasta County Jail, where they will work with their lawyers on their defense in the double-murder case. Shasta County District Attorney McGregor Scott has said he will seek the death penalty if the brothers are found guilty of murder.

Today, Shasta County Superior Court Judge James Ruggeiro is expected to set a date for the double-murder trial.

While the Williams brothers were preparing for Tuesday's hearing, Jews and non-Jews gathered in Sacramento for an interfaith Solidarity Seder. About 90 attended the Monday night event.

"It gave us the opportunity to explain what a seder is to those who don't know," Friedman said. "But it also gave us a chance to thank the non-Jewish community for their support."

Tuesday's hearing put the attack on the synagogues in perspective for Friedman. He realized when he met Matson's relatives that "we have been able to rebuild our synagogues. For them, the loss is permanent."

Matson's brother drove up from Redding for the hearing to support the arson victims.

Said Carrel: "Before he left, he shook my hand and said, 'We're all in this together, fighting intolerance.'"

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.