A fire was found outside Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas Sunday, Oct. 31. (Photo/Austin Fire Department)
A fire was found outside Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas Sunday, Oct. 31. (Photo/Austin Fire Department)

18-year-old suspect arrested in Austin synagogue arson case

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A suspect has been arrested related to a fire set at an Austin synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, on Oct. 31.

Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, was arrested Wednesday by arson investigators with the Austin Fire Department. Investigators identified Sechriest using surveillance footage that showed the license plate on the car he allegedly used to get to the synagogue.

The fire, set on Halloween night, caused an estimated $25,000 of damage to the building, according to the Austin Fire Department. According to a donation page on the synagogue’s website, the fire destroyed the synagogue’s carved wooden doors, damaged the building’s stained glass windows and caused smoke damage throughout the sanctuary.

The Austin Fire Department had appealed to the public to help identify the suspect, who they described as a white male. Video showed the man carrying a 5-gallon jerry can container, likely with the liquid accelerant used to set the fire at the entrance of the synagogue.

The fire was the latest in a series of antisemitic incidents in the Austin area. On Oct. 24, members of the Goyim Defense League, a neo-Nazi group, hung banners from an overpass near the local Jewish Community Center as well as a number of synagogues proclaiming “Vax the Jews.” Though the banner was removed and the demonstration around it broken up by police, an identical banner was hung from the same intersection just two days later. At the time, leaders of the Shalom Austin Jewish community center warned community members that the group might stage further demonstrations in the area in the coming days.

Goyim Defense League members hang an antisemitic banner from an overpass in Austin, Texas, Oct. 24, 2021. (Screenshot/CBS Austin)
Goyim Defense League members hang an antisemitic banner from an overpass in Austin, Texas, Oct. 24, 2021. (Screenshot/CBS Austin)

The GDL is led by a Petaluma resident, Jon Minadeo Jr.

In a statement, Rabbi Steven Folberg, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, thanked the investigators for their work on the case and noted a recent increase in antisemitic incidents in Texas.

“It gives us some sense of relief to learn of this arrest, but we are staying vigilant. Across Central Texas and beyond, we are seeing a spike in attacks against Jews,” Folberg said.

Shira Hanau
Shira Hanau

Shira Hanau is a reporter at JTA. She was previously a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week and has written for the Forward, Columbia Journalism Review and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

JTA

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