Hearing set on arson suspects change-of-venue request

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Two white-supremacist siblings facing charges for the 1999 firebombing of three Sacramento-area synagogues and an abortion clinic may finally stand trial July 17.

But at this point it's unclear where the men will be tried.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Lapham and Benjamin B. Wagner filed papers Friday opposing a motion filed on behalf of arson and murder defendants James Tyler Williams, 31, and his brother Benjamin Matthew, 33, to change the venue of their arson trial.

The brothers, who also face charges for the 1999 murder of a gay couple in Shasta County, had requested that their trial be moved as far as Portland, Ore., or Las Vegas, Nev. They claimed that "extensive" media coverage would prevent a fair trial within the U.S. District Court's Eastern District of California.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for May 18 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

The brothers' request is based on a study of newspaper reports and a public opinion survey conducted by their attorneys, Quin Denvir and Mary French.

Lapham and Wagner disagreed with the motion, noting in their opposition papers that it was Benjamin Matthew Williams' own pursuit of media attention and jailhouse interviews that created the coverage in question.

In extensive jailhouse interviews the elder Williams, who goes by Matthew, even confessed to the arson and murder charges, exonerating his brother.

"They claim the reporting has been inflammatory," said Lapham, in a telephone interview from his Sacramento office. "It has actually been quite mild and has tapered off tremendously."

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League's S.F.-based Central Pacific region, agreed with the position taken by Lapham and Wagner.

"It's best for the trial to occur in the location where the crime was committed," he said. "It helps the community to heal."

But Bernstein said the venue has little to do with the case's outcome. "I truly believe justice would be served no matter where it takes place."

The brothers, both of Palo Cedro near Redding, are accused of willfully and knowingly trying to destroy by fire Congregation B'nai Israel and Knesset Israel Torah Center near downtown Sacramento and Congregation Beth Shalom in suburban Carmichael on the night of June 18, 1999.

They are also charged with a July 2, 1999 torching at the Country Club Medical Center, which houses the Choice Medical Group abortion clinic.

In December 1999, KOVR-TV reporter Jon Baird reported that Matthew Williams called him collect from the Shasta County jail and told him that he helped mix the oil and gas that his "organization" used to start the synagogue fires.

No one was injured in the attacks, which caused more than $1 million in damage.

The pool of evidence against the brothers is massive and includes:

*A conversation taped at the Shasta County Jail on July 8 between Matthew Williams and his mother, Sally, in which he allegedly claims he is compelled to "obey God's law, not man's law."

*A letter from the elder Williams to a bank services employee who had been handling his credit card application. It allegedly read: "My brother James and I have been captured by occupational storm troopers while on a supply trip to Yuba City. Now we are incarcerated for our religious beliefs."

*A list of 32 prominent Jews, most of them Sacramento area residents, found during a property search. The list also includes Jewish Bulletin editor and publisher Marc S. Klein.

*A stockpile of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

*The results of lab tests done on items seized by police on a search of the elder Williams' home and evidence at the scene of the fire. The evidence includes flakes of paint found on a crowbar allegedly used to pry open a door at the abortion clinic, reportedly matching the paint on a doorjamb at one of the synagogues.

Although Matthew Williams has repeatedly said his brother was not involved, both were indicted by a federal grand jury in Sacramento in March 2000.

In addition to the 13 arson-related counts the men also are charged with the shooting deaths of Gary Matson, 50, and Winfield Mowder, 40, a well-liked Redding-area gay couple found blood-soaked in their Happy Valley home July 1, 1999. Shasta County District Attorney MacGregor Scott is seeking the death penalty in the case.

Until the March indictment, Matthew Williams had rigorously sought several media outlets to profess his anti-Semitic, anti-gay, white supremacist beliefs and confess to both crimes, citing a biblical mandate as his motive.

At one point, he had reportedly grown a Hitler-style mustache and announced his intention to sport a Nazi-style uniform in court.

James Tyler Williams has never spoken publicly about the cases.

Both men have pleaded innocent to all charges against them.