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November 12, 2021 1:22 pm
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18-Year-Old University Student Arrested in Austin Synagogue Arson

avatar by Algemeiner Staff

The aftermath of a fire set at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas on Sunday, Oct. 31. Photo: Austin Fire Department

An 18-year-old Texas State University student is facing felony charges for allegedly setting fire to an Austin, Texas synagogue.

Franklin Barrett Sechriest was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of using a liquid accelerant to start a fire at the entrance to Congregation Beth Israel on Oct 31., causing some $25,000 in damage, the Austin Fire Department said.

In an arrest affidavit, investigators said surveillance footage had captured a dark-colored Jeep entering a nearby parking lot on the night of the fire, with the driver then exiting the vehicle holding what appeared to be a gasoline jug. Footage from four separate camera angles then caught the ignition of the fire, including a view from inside the Beth Israel sanctuary showing flames running across the floor.

The suspect was then allegedly seen returning to the Jeep and driving away, as smoke and light from the fire can be seen in the frame.

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The vehicle’s license plate later led authorities to Sechriest’s home in San Marcos, Texas, where he lives with his mother.

The 18-year-old is charged with first-degree felony arson, for starting a fire with “intent to damage or destroy a place of assembly or worship.”

Beth Israel Senior Rabbi Steve Folberg issued a statement Wednesday thanking the Austin Fire Department, Austin Police Department and the FBI.

“It gives us some sense of relief to learn of this arrest, but we are staying vigilant,” Folberg said. “Across Central Texas and beyond, we are seeing a spike in attacks against Jews. We denounce all acts of bigotry and violence, especially those motivated by blind hatred of any of the proud and distinctive communities that enrich our civic life. We will remain strong and vigilant in the ongoing work of justice, safety and peace for ourselves and all our neighbors.”

The Reform congregation had told members in a letter Tuesday that the damage to the synagogue was “much more extensive” than originally thought, including significant smoke damage, and that Shabbat services would for the time being be held elsewhere.

The attempted arson came amid a spate of antisemitic incidents in the Austin area, prompting the passage of a City Council resolution condemning “all hateful speech and violent action that casts blame, promotes racism or discrimination, or harms the Jewish community.”

Recent incidents included the vandalization of a local high school with Nazi symbols, a banner hung from an overpass that said “Vax the Jews,” the public display of antisemitic posters on a local street, and Jewish residents receiving antisemitic letters blaming them for the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas State University, where Sechriest was enrolled, told the local KXAN news that it would continue to assist authorities in their ongoing investigation, and that the school “decries this hateful act of bigotry and violence and all the antisemitic events perpetrated recently in Austin, San Antonio, and San Marcos.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler publicized a solidarity rally planned for Sunday afternoon at the Texas Capitol South Steps.

“Hate has no place in Austin,” Adler said on Twitter, calling it “an opportunity to gather and heal from recent antisemitic acts in our city.”

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