A Texas teen accused of setting fire to an Austin, Texas, synagogue kept a series of handwritten journals suggesting a virulent hatred for Jewish people, and memorialized his alleged Halloween night crime in one entry by scrawling, “I set fire to a synagogue.”
That’s according to a federal complaint unsealed Monday, charging Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, with one count of arson, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Sechriest also seethed about African-Americans, casually using the n-word alongside banal scribblings about getting matched on Tinder and eating at Buffalo Wild Wings.
The feds filed the complaint on Nov. 12, one day after Sechriest, a student at Texas State University and a private in the Texas State Guard at the time, was arrested on state arson charges for the blaze the feds say caused some $25,000 worth of damage to Congregation Beth Israel. The synagogue pegged the estimated damage at more than $150,000.
A spokesperson for the Texas Military Department, which oversees the Texas Guard, told The Daily Beast that Sechriest “is no longer a member of the Texas State Guard. He resigned earlier this month.” Sechriest’s lawyer, Richard Lyn Cofer II, did not respond to a request for comment. His mother, Nicole, hung up when reached by phone.
Sechriest was initially identified by investigators with the Austin Fire Department who spotted the license plate number of his Jeep on surveillance footage captured by a camera in the Beth Israel parking lot. The plate led authorities to Sechriest’s home in San Marcos, Texas, where he lives with his mother, Nicole, according to a state warrant for Sechriest’s arrest previously obtained by The Daily Beast.
FBI surveillance teams began tailing Sechriest on Nov. 8, just days after the synagogue fire, the newly unsealed federal complaint reveals. Agents “observed [Sechriest] driving the 2021 Jeep Cherokee” he allegedly used to carry out the arson attack and felt he “matched the person seen in the October 31 Synagogue surveillance video,” the filing states.
Two days later, the FBI searched Sechriest’s residence and vehicle, the complaint continues. In the Jeep, agents discovered three 33-ounce glass bottles, three 32-ounce bottles of lighter fluid, a lighter, and stormproof matches, which are “consistent with materials that can be used and combined to produce destructive devices known as Molotov cocktails,” says the complaint.
They also found three stickers espousing violently bigoted views, a photo of which is included in the complaint. One, which included an illustration of an undocumented family in the crosshairs of a rifle scope, bore a caption reading, “No invader is innocent.” The other two included line drawings of a police officer, a politician, and a doctor, all with Jewish stars and an “X” over their faces. “Would you kill them all to seize your rights?” it said on the front, with two swastikas bookending a line at the bottom, reading, “The price of freedom is paid in blood.”
On the reverse, the stickers said: “They hate your ancestors. They hate your culture. They hate your nation. They hate your religion. They hate your children. They think it’s funny. It’s okay to hate them back.”
In one of the journals seized by the FBI, an Oct. 28 entry includes reminders—written in Sechriest’s hand—to meditate, pick up a hoodie, meme on Telegram, and “scout out a target,” the complaint states.
Two additional pages in the journal, dated Oct. 31, say, among other things, “Get matched on Tinder!” “Go to Wild Wings, food isn’t great,” and “I set a synagogue on fire.”
In a journal page dated Nov. 2 and included in the complaint, Sechriest’s entries indicate that he had begun following the arson investigation in the news. He added the word “redacted” to portions of his notes, and crossed out certain words in black ink after jotting them down.
“Check reports on [REDACTED], get worried when it mentions they are ‘hopeful a suspect will be caught based on redacted,” says one. “Dress normally for once,” says another. “Inform mom about [REDACTED],” says a third, before an entry about going to a class covering “post-processual archeology” and “early Mesoamerican civilization.” The FBI also discovered a calendar planner belonging to Sechriest, which contained an entry for Aug. 19-20 saying, “[N-word] appreciation class.” Agents searching Sechriest’s home found the clothes seen in the Oct. 31 synagogue surveillance footage, as well as an American Express card that had been used to buy a green, five-gallon fuel jug that Sechriest was caught on video carrying to the temple right before the blaze, authorities said.
In a Nov. 9 note 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.”
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 instead in the building’s auditorium “for quite some time.”
Austin has seen a recent surge in anti-Semitic acts, which should serve as “a wake-up call to the community,” extremism expert and Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Eric Ward told The Daily Beast shortly after Sechriest’s arrest last week.
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. The Beth Israel arson occurred a week after the Goyim Defense League hung a banner from an Austin bridge, reading, “Vax the Jews.”
Goyim Defense League leader Jon E. Minadeo, 38, told The Daily Beast the swastika burning was “absolutely not” associated with the synagogue fire and that Sechriest is not affiliated with the group, contrary to some early reports.
“We’ve never, ever done anything violent towards Jews,” Minadeo insisted, saying the group’s torching of a swastika on Halloween was simply “burning the flag of what we believe is the synagogue of Satan.”
Federal prosecutors have asked for Sechriest to be held without bond.