A Texas teen is facing felony arson charges for allegedly setting fire to an Austin synagogue on Halloween night.
Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, was arrested Wednesday by criminal investigators with the Austin Fire Department. Sechriest was identified thanks to surveillance footage from the parking lot of Congregation Beth Israel before, during, and after the blaze, showing the license plate number of his Jeep—which led cops to Sechriest’s home in San Marcos, Texas, where he lives with his mother, Nicole, according to a warrant for Sechriest's arrest obtained by The Daily Beast.
The fire caused approximately $25,000 worth of damage to the temple, it states.
Sechriest was booked into the Travis County Jail on Wednesday at 6:20 p.m., according to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. He remained jailed on $100,000 bond, which he had not yet posted as of Thursday morning, a sheriff’s office official confirmed.
Sechriest was unable to be reached for comment and does not have a lawyer listed in court records. Nicole Sechriest hung up immediately when contacted by The Daily Beast.
The affidavit accusing Sechriest of setting the fire says arson investigators “observed burn patterns consistent with the use of a liquid accelerant and ruled out all ignition sources except an open flame introduced by human means.”
Video of Sechriest’s Jeep entering the synagogue’s parking lot shortly before 9 p.m. on Halloween night was captured on multiple surveillance cameras, according to the affidavit.
“As the driver exits the vehicle, the SUV begins to roll backwards, at which time the driver jumps back in to stop the vehicle,” the affidavit states.
The driver, later identified as Sechriest, then exited the vehicle again and walked “toward the area where the fire was started.” He can be seen wearing green pants, a black shirt, a face covering, and a watch on his right wrist, and carrying a green container investigators say was filled with fuel, as he walked toward the entrance to the synagogue. He then “quickly turns and walks away.”
As the fire burns, the “subject then returns within camera view, running back to the vehicle,” states the affidavit. “At approximately 9:03 pm, the suspect vehicle drives away… Smoke and light from the fire can still be seen on the video as the Jeep drives away.”
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 told members, “What we initially thought (and hoped) amounted to minimal, external damage to the Sanctuary doors, has turned out to be much more extensive.”
“Security camera footage from inside the Walter Cohen Sanctuary Foyer shows liquid fire accelerant seeping under the Sanctuary doors and onto the stone tile floors of the foyer just before the arsonist ignited the liquid,” the bulletin explains. “It is horrifying to see multiple tendrils of flame engulfing our sanctuary doors on the inside as well as the outside. Thank God that a passerby saw the flames and called 911 so that the Fire Department arrived quickly. Also, the fact that the flooring in the foyer is made of stone tile rather than wood or carpet may very well have kept the fire from spreading all the way into the sanctuary itself.”
Still, the letter continued, “the smoke damage is very extensive. Every surface needs to be scrubbed down at a minimum and much will need to be torn out and replaced. The fire remediation company is running specialized ‘air scrubbers’ designed to break down the chemical compounds that are causing the noxious smell that currently pervades our worship space.”
The temple’s worship space will be unusable for “much longer than we had hoped,” and the repairs will cost far more than expected, according to the letter, which says services will be held in the building’s auditorium “for quite some time.” On Friday night, the synagogue will stream Shabbat services online, and Folberg hopes to reopen for in-person services on Nov. 19.
In an emailed statement, Folberg expressed “some sense of relief” over Sechriest’s arrest but 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.”
Some hours after the fire was set at the synagogue, members of the Goyim Defense League, a noxious group of neo-Nazis the ADL describes as “a small network of virulently antisemitic provocateurs,” livestreamed a swastika burning in the Austin area.
“Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world,” says one. “I pronounce this a lighting of the white race… This is the eternal swastika… Praise Yahweh!... Fuck the kikes!”
“Fuck the kikes, praise Yahweh,” another attendee calls out.
Goyim Defense League leader Jon E. Minadeo of Petaluma, California, said he was there. Minadeo, 38, is an “actor and writer” who appeared in Curveball, a 2011 romantic comedy in which his character decides to finally propose to his girlfriend but discovers she has been having an affair with his best friend.
Minadeo, who launched his own line of Adolf Hitler t-shirts earlier this year, told The Daily Beast the swastika burning was “absolutely not” associated with the synagogue fire.
In a tense phone conversation, he claimed Sechriest was not affiliated with the Goyim Defense League and claimed the group doesn’t condone violence “on Jews or any other group of people.” He described the loosely-connected syndicate as “an online thing for trolling people,” adding, “People come together when we do activism.”
In another video posted on Halloween, titled, “Happy Halloween KIKES! HEIL HITLER,” Goyim Defense League members sing, “Everybody wants a Jew-free world,” to the tune of the 1985 Tears for Fears hit, “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.”
“We’ve never, ever done anything violent towards Jews,” Minadeo insisted, saying the group was simply “burning the flag of what we believe is the synagogue of Satan.” He then became upset about being pilloried previously in the media, which he decried as being “run by Jews,” and complained that he couldn’t get a fair shake with any reporter who is Jewish or sympathetic towards the Jewish religion.
Minadeo previously posted anti-Semitic videos online under the pseudonym “Handsome Truth 5,” until he was banned from YouTube for “multiple or severe violations of YouTube's policy prohibiting hate speech.” In August 2019, after posting flyers in Santa Rosa, California claiming that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks, his true identity was revealed when a notice was published in a local community newspaper announcing that a Jon Minadeo II had registered a business with the Sonoma County Clerk called Handsome Truth Enterprises.
The Beth Israel arson occurred a week after the Goyim Defense League hung a banner from an Austin bridge in the vicinity of a Jewish community center and several synagogues, reading “Vax the Jews.” The banner was soon removed by police, but an identical message reappeared in the same spot two days later. Jewish leaders in Austin cautioned that the group could launch further efforts in the days to come, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Austin has seen a recent spike in anti-Semitism. Another ugly incident that occurred in the city days before the synagogue fire saw anti-Semitic graffiti, along with racist and homophobic slurs, scrawled at Anderson High School, which has a student body made up of significant numbers of Jews.
“The rise of antisemitic acts in Austin is part of a disturbing national trend,” extremism expert and Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Eric Ward told The Daily Beast. “A recent report by the American Jewish Committee documents one in four American Jews having experienced antisemitism during the last year. Violence is a natural outcome of unchecked antisemitic attitudes and bias. White nationalists don’t bring antisemitism into communities, these prophets of prejudice simply organize the bigotry that already exists. This is a wake-up call to the community of Austin. Tangible actions needs to be taken to draw a clear moral barrier against antisemitism and the anti-Jewish tropes that fuel it.”
Since the arson attack, Congregation Beth Israel has received donations from supporters worldwide, which the shul’s website says “will help us to repair and rebuild our synagogue, strengthen our security, and support Congregation Beth Israel as we heal from this hateful, cowardly act.”