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Suspect pleads guilty to arson, hate-crime charges for setting fire to Congregation Beth Israel

Austinites rallied in support of Congregation Beth Israel on Nov. 14, 2021 outside the Texas Capitol.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Demonstrators rally in support of Congregation Beth Israel outside the Capitol in 2021.

A San Marcos man pleaded guilty Friday to two felonies for setting fire to an Austin synagogue in 2021.

Franklin Sechriest, 20, was charged with one count of arson for the fire at Congregation Beth Israel and another count of damage to a religious property, a hate crime. A third felony was dropped as part of the plea deal.

In a journal found during the investigation, Sechriest admitted he "set a synagogue on fire" on the night of the incident. The FBI said security camera footage also showed him scoping out the synagogue's children center days before the fire.

Sechriest faces up to 20 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.

The arson came after weeks of antisemitic incidents throughout Austin, including a hate group flying antisemitic banners on MoPac near Beth Israel.

Lori Adelman, a member of the congregation, said news of the plea came Thursday as the community prepared for a Passover Seder, a feast to celebrate the Jewish holiday.

Adelman said she couldn’t help but think of part of the Passover story told during the Seder: when God rebukes the fleeing Israelites for celebrating the deaths of their Egyptian pursuers in the Red Sea.

She said no one is celebrating Sechriest’s guilty pleas, but they’re glad he’s taking responsibility.

“No one here is cheering that this happened and that there is a guilty plea,” she said. “No one is happy that someone tried to burn down our synagogue, but we’re just trying to figure out how we ... move forward and stay strong and become stronger.”

Adelman said there's still smoke damage in the synagogue and that repairs will cost an estimated $400,000. But, she said, the community has received help from Austin's interfaith community: St. Matthew's Episcopal Church has offered space for services and the Muslim community contributed to Beth Israel's rebuilding, as well.

"We're seeing the good in all the people ... overwhelm this one really bad act," she said.

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

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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