A Texas college student accused of torching a synagogue last Halloween pulled off an armed robbery on his own school’s campus three months before setting the fire, prosecutors said in a previously unreported court filing.
Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, was arrested last November by criminal investigators with the Austin Fire Department, who identified the Texas State freshman thanks to surveillance footage from the synagogue that captured images of his license plate. Detectives then traced the plate back to Sechriest’s mother’s home, where he lived, according to a state warrant for Sechriest's arrest.
The alleged arson attack caused more than $150,000 in damage to Congregation Beth Israel, destroying the building’s historic doors, ruining its stained glass windows, and causing extensive smoke damage throughout the sanctuary, synagogue officials announced at the time. Sechriest was subsequently charged in federal court with one count of arson, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Sechriest kept a series of journals, found by FBI agents, in which he wrote about his apparent hatred for Jews and Black people, along with his feelings about the food at Buffalo Wild Wings, prosecutors say. In one entry from Oct. 31, Sechriest wrote, “I set a synagogue on fire,” court records say.
In response to a sealed motion by Sechriest’s lawyer to have him committed to an unnamed out-of-state psychiatric hospital pending trial, prosecutors argued that Sechriest is simply too dangerous to house anywhere but a highly secure jail. This, they said in a Feb. 2 filing, was borne out in large part by evidence gathered in the arson, such as “materials commonly used to make Molotov cocktails, signifying his intent to engage in more violent criminal conduct and escalate his dangerousness.”
The prosecution also revealed, for the first time, that Sechriest’s behavior had grown increasingly violent in the period leading up to the synagogue attack.
“The evidence showed not only that Defendant set fire to the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, a Jewish place of worship, on October 31, 2021, but that Defendant also committed an armed robbery of 4 Black victims and a Hispanic victim on the campus of Texas State University in August 2021,” the filing states, adding that the “nature and extent of this evidence alone justifies Defendant’s detention.”
The facility recommended by the defense is also not equipped to “keep a defendant accused of serious violent felonies in custody for the duration of treatment,” and refuses patients ordered into treatment by court order, according to prosecutors, who also argued that Sechriest is a serious flight risk—something that wasn’t mentioned in the judge’s initial detention order.
“The evidence presented to the Court—including testimony from Defendant’s father—showed that Defendant has no ties whatsoever to Texas generally, or to the Austin community in particular,” prosecutors said in their filing. “Defendant and his parents moved to the Austin area from Minnesota only a few months ago so that Defendant could attend Texas State University and enlist in the Texas State Guard. Since he’s been arrested, Defendant is no longer enrolled as a Texas State student and is no longer affiliated with the Texas State Guard (if he ever was); thus, whatever minimal ties he tried to establish in the area no longer exist. Defendant’s repeated requests to be transported out of the jurisdiction for mental health treatment only further highlight his lack of ties to this community.”
After his arrest for the synagogue arson, Sechriest resigned from the Texas Guard, a spokesperson for the Texas Military Department, which oversees the Guard, told The Daily Beast.
Sechriest spent most of his childhood in the San Diego area, where his father, Vernon, worked as a surgeon, his lawyers explained in a December 2021 court filing.
As a child, Sechriest “experienced challenging psychological and physical symptoms,” the filing states. In 2011, it says Sechriest was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Mood Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, and Anxiety Disorder in 2016, and the following year, “possible” Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, a condition that causes debilitating allergic reactions.
In 2015, Sechriest moved with his parents from California to Minnesota, where he completed his high school diploma online during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the defense. The family moved to San Marcos, Texas in 2021, where Sechriest was arrested for the arson. Sechriest has no prior juvenile or adult criminal history, and “is financially dependent on his parents,” with “no independent means or ability to flee,” his lawyers say.
Defense attorney Daniel Wannamaker, who is representing Sechriest, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Sechriest’s autism means he is “not a typical 18-year-old.”
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out if my client is competent,” Wannamaker said. “To me, sanity is still a potential issue. I really need to get to the bottom of what was going on in Franklin’s world, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that in the condition he’s in now.”
In a search of Sechriest’s home and 2021 Jeep Cherokee, FBI agents said they found glass bottles, lighter fluid, a lighter, and stormproof matches, which the bureau said were ingredients for making Molotov cocktails. Along with Sechriest’s diaries, investigators said they also discovered a number of racist stickers in Sechriest’s possession, such as one with an illustration of a migrant family seen through a rifle scope, reading, “No invader is innocent.” Another showed police officers, politicians, and doctors with Jewish stars obscuring their faces and swastikas at the bottom. “Would you kill them all to seize your rights?” it said. “The price of freedom is paid in blood.”
But Wannamaker on Wednesday described Sechriest’s alleged descent into extremism as “one of the more tragic cases” he’s handled in nearly four decades as a lawyer. He said the magistrate judge who at first handled Sechriest’s case believed he should be in a psychiatric facility, but that prosecutors put the kibosh on that plan.
“Any 18-year-old thrown in jail for four months would have a rough go of it, but with autism I think we’re doing ongoing harm to him,” Wannamaker told The Daily Beast, adding that he will keep pushing for therapeutic treatment. “My concern is my client’s health and well-being. Physically, he’s lost about 30 pounds, and psychologically, I think he’s being harmed by being detained.”
Wannamaker claimed “the computer assholes” who he said lured Sechriest into their world during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns were the real villains.
“You can have more than one victim in a case,” Wannamaker said. “I know my client is accused of a serious crime, but I think my client is a victim, as well. COVID hit, and autistic kids are isolated because of the condition naturally. And so with the lockdown, just like everybody else, he retreated to the internet. And the real bad guys here, in my opinion, are the far-right-wing ultra-nationalists who prey on people like my client. They’re vulnerable and they’re easy pickings, because they’re looking for somebody that will give them the time of day. And I think my client fell prey to those people... It’s very, very sad.”
Months later, Congregation Beth Israel continues to recover from the fire. In a Nov. 9 letter to the congregation shared with The Daily Beast by Beth Israel board member Oliver Bernstein, Senior Rabbi Steve Folberg and Beth Israel President Lori Adelman said damage to the temple’s sanctuary was far more extensive than first thought, and that repairs would be much more expensive than they realized.
Anti-Semitic acts have been on an upswing in the Austin area, which Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Eric Ward described to The Daily Beast last fall as “a wake-up call to the community.” In response to the synagogue attack, Shalom Austin and the Anti-Defamation League’s Austin chapter sponsored a “Rally for Kindness” days after the fire Sechriest allegedly set.
Sechriest remains detained without bail.