Federal Prison Sentenced Synagogue Arsonist for Hate Crime
On Wednesday, a man who entered a guilty plea for lighting a synagogue in Austin, Texas, in 2021 was given a 10-year prison term.
Following a number of victim impact statements from members of the Reform congregation Congregation Beth Israel, Franklin Sechriest was sentenced. Prosecutors requested that US District Judge David Ezra sentence Sechriest to ten years in prison, citing his “deep-seated hatred of persons of the Jewish faith” and the “tremendous damage” he did. Normally, federal sentencing guidelines call for a five-year sentence.
Sechriest entered a guilty plea in April to two federal offenses, one of which was the hate crime of destroying religious property. He acknowledged starting a fire in October 2021 that cost the sanctuary around $250,000 in repairs to its beautiful glass windows and ancient front doors.
In his car, investigators discovered antisemitic and racist literature, bomb-making materials, and hate journals in which he had written, “I set a synagogue on fire.”
Sechriest, a student at Texas State University and a member of the Texas State Guard, was mandated by the US Department of Justice to spend an extra three years of supervised release after his release from jail and to pay $470,000 in restitution to Congregation Beth Israel.
Cohen stated that given the tense national atmosphere surrounding antisemitism, the sentence bore additional weight. Law enforcement and Jewish organizations have noted an increase in antisemitic incidents, and since Hamas’s devastating attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent war against the terror group in Gaza, numerous Jewish institutions have been the target of vandalism, bomb threats, and other criminal behavior.
Cohen added, “All Jewish communities across the country are on heightened alert due to rising antisemitism,” noting that just a few weeks prior the congregation had received a robocall from the Ku Klux Klan. “Everyone is anxious and wonders if hate can reach our doorstep.”
The Goyim Defense League, a white supremacist organization that organizes antisemitic demonstrations and disseminates literature encouraging hatred of Jews, was behind a wave of antisemitic occurrences in Austin that coincided with the fire. The group, which the Anti-Defamation League claimed was in charge of about 500 antisemitic events in 2022, had webcast a swastika-burning event immediately after the synagogue fire and had draped a banner saying “Vax the Jews” from an Austin bridge in the days leading up to the fire. The founder of the group clarified to the Daily Beast that Sechriest has no connection to the Goyim Defense League.
Investigators claimed to have seen Sechriest’s car at the synagogue shortly before the fire broke out in security footage. He was observed racing away from the fire and carrying a 5-gallon (19-liter) container filled with toilet paper toward the sanctuary doors.
The board of directors of the congregation approved of offering Sechriest a plea bargain.
Sechriest’s lawyer, Daniel Wannamaker, informed JTA that his client will receive credit for the two years he had already served in county jail. Sechriest has given up the option to file an appeal.
Wannamaker stated, “It’s a tough case because it’s a heinous crime,” and he thought Sechriest, an autistic person, had been motivated by an internet hate group.
Wannamaker claimed that his client has “several mental and emotional conditions” and would require additional time to comprehend the gravity of his sentence in court documents requesting a postponement of the hearing. The judge turned down his plea.