‘I set a synagogue on fire’: Man accused in Austin arson faces federal charge

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The man accused of setting an Austin synagogue on fire now faces a federal arson charge, according to U.S. District Court records.

In the federal criminal complaint affidavit, a special agent with the FBI said Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, used an accelerant to start a fire near the sanctuary doors of Congregation Beth Israel on Halloween night.

A motion for detention was also filed for Sechriest to be held without bond.

While executing a search warrant, the affidavit said authorities found an American Express card in Sechriest’s name. A statement showed the card was used on Sept. 6 to buy a five-gallon VP Racing Fuel utility jug.

When authorities searched his car, they found three 33-ounce glass bottles, three 32-ounce bottles of lighter fluid, a lighter and stormproof matches, the affidavit said. The agent noted in the affidavit those things are commonly used to make Molotov cocktails.

Authorities also found a journal they said belongs to Sechriest and in it includes notes “scout out a target,” dated Oct. 28. Through surveillance footage provided by the synagogue, authorities said Sechriest’s vehicle was in the synagogue’s parking lot that night.

The journal entry dated Oct. 31 said, “I set a synagogue on fire,” in different colored ink than other entries, the affidavit shows.

He’s been charged with arson but will this amount to a hate crime?

The FBI defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” according to its website.

According to the DOJ documents, the FBI agent who wrote the report deals specifically with cases related to hate crimes.

We spoke with a retired Austin judge for insight on hate crime investigations.

“The FBI has to make some kind of determination internally to see if this is an allegation that can be proven or rather this was a random circumstance,” said Charlie Baird.

Those findings would then go to a review board, and the Attorney General’s Office would ultimately make the final determination. If this is deemed a hate crime, Sechriest’s arson charge would be “enhanced” and his sentence would be longer.

“It is very rare for an individual to be charged with a hate crime against a structure versus a hate crime against an individual,” said Baird, adding hate can be harder to prove in those instances.

Jail records indicate while Sechriest bonded out of Travis County Jail on Nov. 11, he was taken back into custody the following day. We have reached out to Sechriest’s attorney for a comment and left multiple messages with a receptionist but have not heard back.

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