Austin, Texas
Austin, TexasiStock

A Texas man pleaded guilty on Friday to arson and a hate crime charge related to a fire he started at Congregation Beth Israel Reform synagogue in Austin, Texas on October 31, 2021.

Court documents and admissions made during the plea hearing revealed that on October 28, 2021, Franklin Sechriest, 18, of San Marcos, Texas, drove to the synagogue’s parking lot. According to journals recovered from Sechriest, he was there to “scout out a target.” Sechriest admitted that he targeted the synagogue because of his hatred of Jews. According to the Department of Justice, his journals were full of “virulent antisemitic statements and views” and he also possessed several decals and stickers expressing antisemitic messages.

Three days later, Sechriest drove to the synagogue. He was captured by a security camera transporting a five-gallon container and toilet paper toward the synagogue’s sanctuary. Moments later, multiple surveillance videos showed flames coming from a fire in the direction of the sanctuary. Sechriest was also captured on surveillance footage fleeing from the fire and getting into his car through the open driver’s side door.

Sechriest wrote in his journal that day: “I set a synagogue on fire.” In subsequent entries, he wrote about following media reports of the investigation into the arson.

“Antisemitism has no place in our society, and hate-fueled violence will not be tolerated,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “By targeting a house of worship, the defendant attempted to intimidate and disrupt the Jewish community. The Department of Justice is committed to aggressively prosecuting antisemitic violence and will continue to hold accountable the people responsible for these deplorable incidents.”

“These hate-filled crimes not only caused damage to a Jewish place of worship, but they were intended to intimidate and undermine the well-being of the entire Jewish community,” said U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza for the Western District of Texas. “Antisemitic violence and violence against any person or group on account of their religion will not be tolerated. My office will remain vigilant in bringing to justice criminals who engage in hate crimes.”

According to the synagogue, the fire destroyed the Reform congregation’s carved wooden doors, damaged the building’s stained glass windows and caused smoke damage throughout the sanctuary.

Sechriest’s sentencing will occur on June 23. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.