Austin, TX – On Halloween night, the Congregation Beth Israel in North Austin was the victim of arson from a male suspect who has since been identified as 18-year-old college student Franklin Barrett Sechriest.
Sechriest has been accused and charged for arson, a first-degree felony on Nov. 12. The suspect is a Texas State student and part of the Texas National Guard. According to court documents provided by the Austin Statesman, Sechriest wrote in a journal, “I set a synagogue on fire. … Get worried when it mentions they are ‘hopeful’ a suspect will be caught.”
Officials have also found photographs of racist and antisemitic images as well as other pieces of evidence against him. “Based on my training and experience, and that of other agents knowledgeable about explosive devices, these items are consistent with materials that can be used and combined to produce destructive devices known as Molotov cocktails,” said FBI agent Thomas P. Joy Jr.
The Austin Fire Department stated in a tweet that “ the suspect is wearing a black T-shirt over olive green pants, with a face mask on.” Video surveillance caught the suspect approaching the synagogue with a “jerry can style” container and leaving with the same container.
Prior to the incident, a group of protestors hung a “Vax the Jews” banner near the Jewish Community Center in West Austin as well as antisemitic graffiti at Anderson High School, according to a local news station KXAN. In the same incident, a video of an Austin Police Department officer fist-bumping a protester circulated around social media that caused controversy and Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended the officer’s actions in a tweet.
The aftermath of the arson attack left damage that was estimated to have reached about $150,000, according to KVUE. While there is no set timeline in when the synagogue will be recovered, Rabbi Steve Folberg stated, “I think, for a lot of people, there is a sense of personal violation because a space that they associate with some of the significant moments of their lives, that people tried to destroy it.”
In a statement from Simone Talma Flowers, the executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, Flowers said “Hateful acts of intimidation to incite violence is unacceptable, and we will not be silent.”
A press conference was held at the Dell Jewish Community Center where Austin Mayor Steve Adler stated, “As a community, we have everyone’s back.”
The investigation is still ongoing.