Suspect wanted for Congregation Beth Israel fire arrested

Austin Fire Department arson investigators have made an arrest in connection with the fire set at Congregation Beth Israel on October 31.

18-year-old Franklin Barrett Sechriest has been arrested and charged with first-degree felony arson in the fire to the porch and entry of the Beth Israel Synagogue which caused an estimated $25,000 in damages to the structure. 

Franklin Barrett Sechriest (Austin Fire Department)

The building sustained damage to the front, wooden doors, and some interior damage to floor mats and the door jam. The glass was also damaged by smoke, and one part of the glass appeared to be intentionally broken.

According to court paperwork, 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," leading them to determine the fire was intentionally set.

Officials say surveillance video captured a Jeep driving into the parking lot of the synagogue and a man was seen getting out and approaching the synagogue carrying a five-gallon olive green "jerry can" style container. He is then seen leaving the scene carrying the container and smoke and light from the fire is still seen on the video as the Jeep drives away, says court paperwork.

Surveillance video from three days before the fire showed the same Jeep driving through the synagogue's parking lot. Court paperwork says that the front license plate was clearly visible in the video, which led investigators to a 2021 Jeep Cherokee registered to a woman in San Marcos who lives at the same address as Sechriest.

On Monday, Nov. 8, law enforcement saw Sechriest driving the Cherokee and matching the physical description of the man seen in the surveillance video, including wearing a watch on his right wrist, says court paperwork.

This is an ongoing, joint investigation involving the Austin Fire Department and the FBI, says AFD.

In response to the fire, city leaders from all faith backgrounds recently gathered at the Dell Jewish Community Center to show support for the Jewish community. The fire came on the heels of a couple of other incidents, though it's not clear if they're connected.

Earlier this month, antisemitic banners were seen hanging over local freeway overpasses. Just before that, Anderson High School students found antisemitic slurs and symbols painted in their parking lot

In response to the arrest, Congregation Beth Israel Senior Rabbi Steve Folberg issued the following statement:

"We are grateful to the authorities including the Austin Fire Department, Austin Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their diligent and persistent work investigating this hateful, antisemitic act.

"It gives us some sense of relief to learn of this arrest, but we are staying vigilant. 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.

"We are also grateful to our friends at Shalom Austin and ADL Austin and for the support we have received from our Austin community and from around the world over the last 10 days. Those who wish to donate to help support our congregation after this hateful act may do so on our website."

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