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Texas State student arrested in connection with Austin synagogue arson case

Officials have arrested an 18-year-old man and charged him with arson for allegedly starting the fire at Congregation Beth Israel on Oct. 31.

AUSTIN, Texas — Authorities have made an arrest in connection with a fire at an Austin synagogue that caused more than $25,000 in damage.

Eighteen-year-old Franklin Barrett Sechriest was arrested and is accused of arson, a first-degree felony, for reportedly starting a fire at Congregation Beth Israel on Sunday, Oct. 31. Sechriest is being held on a $100,000 bond, according to an arrest affidavit in the case.

According to the Austin Fire Department, the fire at Congregation Beth Israel at 3901 Shoal Creek Blvd. was a "small exterior fire" and was put out. No injuries were reported. 

Arson investigators said fire crews responded just after 9 p.m. after a passerby reported the fire at the front entry of the building. The fire was put out quickly and the building's concrete construction helped it from spreading further, AFD said.

Damage to the building is estimated at $25,000 and includes the synagogue's wooden doors.

On Monday, Nov. 1, AFD said arson investigators had obtained video footage of the incident. According to investigators, a flammable liquid was used to accelerate the fire. Broken glass indicated an item may have been thrown at the building, they said.

The Austin Police Department also responded to the scene to help with traffic control. The police department said it could not comment about whether it would conduct its own investigation into the incident.

The suspect was seen driving into the parking lot of the synagogue in a dark-colored, later-model SUV-style vehicle, possibly a 2017 Jeep Compass. He approached the synagogue carrying a five-gallon olive green "jerry can"-style container. He then left the scene carrying the container. AFD said the suspect's actions were captured via video surveillance.

According to an arrest affidavit, investigators saw the ignition of the fire from four different camera angles, including a camera from inside the sanctuary showing a flame front running across the floor.

Investigators in the case were notified later of additional video showing the suspect driving through the parking lot days before the incident. According to the affidavit, the suspect drove through the parking lot of the synagogue on Oct. 28. The surveillance video showed a vehicle matching the description enter the north parking lot closest to the sanctuary at about 8 p.m. and drive away shortly after. 

The same vehicle drove through the roundabout at 8:08 p.m. 

Then, at about 8:20 p.m., a black Jeep Cherokee driven by a light-skinned person with dark hair hit the curb of the child development center, shined a light toward the front door and drove off 30 seconds later, per the affidavit. 

Investigators found the Jeep was registered to a woman in San Marcos. Further investigation revealed that Sechriest lives at the same address as the woman who had registered the Jeep. 

KVUE confirmed with Texas State University that Sechriest is enrolled at the university as a freshman student. The university released a statement condemning the suspected arsonist's actions:

"We will continue to assist the FBI and Austin Fire Department in the ongoing investigation that led to the arrest of Texas State University student Franklin Barrett Sechriest for the arson attack that damaged the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Austin on Oct. 31. Our university decries this hateful act of bigotry and violence and all the anti-Semitic events perpetrated recently in Austin, San Antonio, and San Marcos. The Texas State University community stands in solidarity with our Jewish students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who have been impacted."

The Texas Military Department confirmed to KVUE on Nov. 12 that Sechriest was a member of the Texas State Guard 6th Brigade. The department gave KVUE the following statement: 

The Texas Military Department will cooperate with authorities as the investigation continues.

The Texas Military Department will not tolerate misconduct or behavior unbecoming of a Soldier or Airmen. Every member of the Texas Military Department is held to a high standard of professionalism. Texans know and trust its National Guard. Any threat to that public trust will not be tolerated.

Congregation Beth Israel Senior Rabbi Steve Folberg issued a statement on the arrest late Wednesday after news the suspect was taken into custody.

“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, anti-Semitic 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."

According to the synagogue's website, the congregation formed in Austin in the late 1870s when the city was only a few decades old and the Jewish population a small fraction of those living in the small city. Part of the building standing at the location now was built in 1956 and has had additional wings and buildings constructed or remodeled since then.

The fire at the synagogue comes just a week after an anti-Semitic banner was displayed over TX-Loop 1. City leaders since then condemned the incident, saying the message has no place in Austin. Shalom Austin called the incident "extremely upsetting and unsettling."  

At this time, it remains unclear if the fire at Congregation Beth Israel was connected to the recent anti-Semitic banners and rallies.

If you have any information regarding this incident, contact the AFD investigations office at 512-974-0240.

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