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FBI says suspected Austin arsonist was looking for a 'target' and said he 'set a synagogue on fire' in his journal

Demonstrators participate in a "Rally for Kindness" at the Capitol on Sunday in response to a recent spike in incidents of antisemitism, hate speech and racism.
Demonstrators participate in a "Rally for Kindness" at the Capitol on Sunday in response to a recent spike in incidents of antisemitism, hate speech and racism.

The Texas State University student accused of setting a fire at an Austin synagogue faces federal charges of arson with intent to damage a house of worship.

Federal authorities arrested Franklin Sechriest on Friday in connection with the fire last month at Congregation Beth Israel in Central Austin. The 18-year-old San Marcos man had been released on a personal bond after being booked in Travis County on a felony arson charge.

Sechriest will remain in federal custody until a hearing Wednesday, the Department of Justice said. He faces up to 20 years if convicted.

In court documents unsealed Monday, federal authorities allege Sechriest had planned the attack for weeks. The documents include images of a journal seized at Sechriest's house that investigators say show he intended to burn down the temple.

A to-do list in the journal from Oct. 28 reads, "scout out a target." According to the complaint, Sechriest's Jeep was spotted on camera that day at Beth Israel's Child Development Center, which is next to the synagogue.

On the night of the fire, an entry reads, "I set a synagogue on fire."

Images from the journal also suggest Sechriest was monitoring media coverage of the fire, including a Nov. 1 press conference during which Austin Fire Department investigators said they had a suspect and were following up on tips.

AFD put a callout for help in the case on Nov. 3; Sechriest was arrested eight days later.

Federal authorities said they also seized from Sechriest's vehicle three 33-ounce glass bottles filled with lighter fluid — which they said could be used for firebombs — and three stickers with hateful rhetoric on them.

Investigators said the suspect could have been planning the attack for weeks. They said an American Express credit card found at Sechriest's house was used Sept. 6 to buy a 5-gallon fuel jug that matches the one seen in Beth Israel's surveillance footage the night of the fire.

Investigators initially estimated the damage of the fire to be at least $25,000. At a "kindness" rally at the state Capitol on Sunday, Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Steve Folberg said the damage exceeded that estimate.

“The physical damage to our synagogue is sadly far greater than we had initially thought," he told the crowd of hundreds. "Repairs may very well cost upwards of $150,000, and it’s not clear how much our insurance will cover."

Folberg said the congregation has been taken aback by the wave of support, both in donations and solidarity. The community has received donations from "literally all over the world," he said. Still, the damage to the community went beyond brick and mortar.

“There are the emotional, the psychological, the spiritual aftershocks,” he said. “Never in my life did I imagine that a day would come when my rabbinic, pastoral responsibilities would include conducting a workshop aimed at helping our temple parents plan how they were going to explain to their preschooler or their 8-year-old or their 9-year-old why somebody had set a fire at the temple where they go to preschool and sing Hebrew songs and celebrate Shabbat.”

The Austin chapter of the Anti-Defamation League urges people to report incidents of hate speech and antisemitism on the ADL's website.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.