Man pleads guilty to hate crime in 2021 arson that damaged Austin, Texas, synagogue


(JTA) — The man charged with setting fire to a synagogue in Austin, Texas, in 2021 has pleaded guilty to two federal charges, including the destruction of religious property, a hate crime.

The board of directors at Congregation Beth Israel endorsed the plea deal, telling members that the agreement had no bearing on Franklin Barrett Sechriest’s ultimate sentence and noting that a trial could deepen their trauma.

The sanctuary, historic front doors and stained glass windows at the Reform synagogue were damaged in the October 2021 fire that Sechriest, during a plea hearing on Thursday, admitted to setting. The fire was extinguished after a passing motorist alerted authorities; Sechriest, then 18, was arrested 10 days after the fire after being identified in surveillance footage.

Investigators found antisemitic and racist material as well as bomb-making supplies in Sechriest’s car, according to details revealed when he was indicted and recounted in a Department of Justice press release on Friday. They also discovered a journal in which he had written, “I set fire to a synagogue.”

Under the terms of the plea deal, Sechriest pleaded guilty to arson and to the hate crime, but prosecutors dropped a third charge, use of a fire to commit a felony. He faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced at a separate hearing, scheduled for June 23.

Congregation Beth Israel’s board of directors had voted to support the plea deal after being consulted by prosecutors, according to a message sent to all members Thursday by the synagogue’s rabbi, president and executive director.

“A plea agreement means the defendant must admit his guilt in open court and allows us to begin to heal without the trauma of being put through what would most likely be a difficult trial,” they wrote. They also noted that members of the synagogue would have the opportunity to submit letters explaining “how the defendant’s actions and the arson impacted us” before Sechriest is sentenced.

The fire came amid a spate of antisemitic incidents in Austin organized by the Goyim Defense League, a white supremacist group that holds antisemitic rallies and distributes literature promoting hatred of Jews. The group, which the Anti-Defamation League said was responsible for nearly 500 antisemitic incidents in 2022, had hung a banner reading “Vax the Jews” from an Austin bridge in the days before the synagogue fire and streamed a swastika-burning event shortly afterwards. The group’s founder told the Daily Beast that Sechriest was not associated with the Goyim Defense League.