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Texas synagogue arsonist who confessed to crime in his journal pleads guilty to hate crime charges

Franklin Sechriest and journal

Franklin Sechriest wrote in his journal: “I set a synagogue on fire,” a hate crime for which he pleaded guilty on Friday. (Images via mugshot and court papers)

A Texas man who set a synagogue on fire and logged the arson in his journal pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges on Friday.

Franklin Barrett Sechriest, who was 19 years old at the time of the attack, targeted Congregation Beth Israel in Austin on Halloween of 2021, intentionally setting the fire that evening at 9 p.m. Central Time. The synagogue, the home of a progressive and reform congregation, sustained more than $25,000 in damage, authorities say.

Some two years after the attack, Sechriest stands convicted of arson and federal hate crime charges on the second day of Passover, a holiday celebrating the liberation of Jewish people from oppression.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the first Black woman to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that Franklin Sechriest’s conviction sends a message from her office.

“Antisemitism has no place in our society, and hate-fueled violence will not be tolerated,” Clark wrote in a statement. “By targeting a house of worship, the defendant attempted to intimidate and disrupt the Jewish community. The Department of Justice is committed to aggressively prosecuting antisemitic violence and will continue to hold accountable the people responsible for these deplorable incidents.”

Three days before the attack, Sechriest made a notation in his journal “scout out a target,” an activity corroborated by video surveillance. He left an even more explicit, and unmistakable, entry on the day of the attack: “I set a synagogue on fire.” After the attack, Sechriest chronicled what he believed to have been the progress of the investigation based on media reports.

When scouring the surveillance video from the evening of the attack, authorities saw Sechriest wearing green utility pants and a black shirt as he exited his black Jeep Cherokee.

“In surveillance video from security cameras overlooking the walkway to the Synagogue administration office, [Sechriest], seen with a face covering and watch on his right wrist and carrying a green container in one hand – similar in size, shape, and color to a green five-gallon VP Racing Fuel utility jug – and a roll of toilet paper in the other hand, walked up a handicap ramp towards the Synagogue’s administration office entrance,” his criminal complaint states. “The five-gallon utility jug may have been full or near full, because [Sechriest] leaned to one side while carrying the jug.”

Sechriest appeared to be alone in the synagogue on the night of the arson, and surveillance footage didn’t detect the presence of any other person. The footage also captured his license plate, which was registered to the name of a relative. The FBI learned that Sechriest lived in the same residence.

On Nov. 11, 2021, a little less than two weeks after the attack, the FBI executed a search warrant. They said they found the clothes he appeared to be wearing that night, the American Express card that they said he used to buy a green five-gallon VP Racing Fuel utility jug, three 32oz bottles of lighter fluid, a lighter and an orange stormproof match case with matches.

The FBI also found a swastika-strewn sticker with “X-s” over stick-figure caricatures of a Jew, a police officer and a doctor. Another sticker declared “NO INVADER IS INNOCENT,” next to an image that showed crosshairs over what appeared to be two fleeing parents and their young child.

His personal calendar also contained a hateful entry with an anti-Black slur: “N—– appreciation class.”

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U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza, from the Western District of Texas, said Sechriest “intended to intimidate and undermine the well-being of the entire Jewish community.”

“Antisemitic violence and violence against any person or group on account of their religion will not be tolerated,” Esparza added. “My office will remain vigilant in bringing to justice criminals who engage in hate crimes.”

Sechriest faces up to 20 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine at his sentencing on June 23.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."