'We are staying vigilant': San Marcos teen charged in Austin synagogue fire on Halloween – Austin American-Statesman

Austin Fire Department arson investigators have charged a San Marcos teenager in connection with a fire set at a synagogue in Central Austin on Halloween night.
Franklin Barrett Sechrist, 18, of San Marcos was arrested on suspicion of arson, a first-degree felony. According to an arrest affidavit, surveillance footage taken from multiple viewpoints shows the suspect driving around the Shoal Creek neighborhood, where Congregation Beth Israel is located, two nights before the incident.
“It gives us some sense of relief to learn of this arrest, but we are staying vigilant,” Rabbi Steve Folberg said in a statement sent to congregation members. “Across Central Texas and beyond, we are seeing a spike in attacks against Jews.”
Surveillance footage obtained by investigators shows a man carrying a 5-gallon fuel container the night of Oct. 31 as he walked onto the campus of the Reform Jewish temple in the 3900 block of Shoal Creek Boulevard near 35th Street, the affidavit says.
The man then left the synagogue, still carrying the container, and drove away in what investigators said looked like a dark-colored Jeep SUV, according to the affidavit.
Austin firefighters responded about 9:05 p.m. to the fire and quickly put out the flames, which were contained to the doors and portico of the sanctuary, officials said. No one was injured. The preschool and private schools that operate out of the campus were not affected by the fire.
Additional video shows a man driving through the parking lot of the synagogue’s campus on Oct. 28, the affidavit says. Around 8 p.m. that night, the video shows a dark-colored SUV entering the north parking lot closest to the sanctuary and driving away shortly after.
More:Rally calls for unity to support Jewish community after fire set at Central Austin synagogue  
Minutes later, the video shows the vehicle driving through a nearby roundabout, and about 8:20 p.m., a dark-colored Jeep Cherokee with recognizable Texas license plates hits a curb of the Child Development Center. The driver shines a flashlight through the front door and drives away about 30 seconds later, according to the affidavit. 
Investigators ran the license plate and determined its make, model and registration information. On Monday, law enforcement observed Barrett Sechriest driving the vehicle and wearing a watch on his right wrist that matched what was seen in the surveillance footage, the affidavit states. 
The Austin Fire Department and the FBI are continuing to investigate the incident.
On Nov. 1, a day after the fire at Congregation Beth Israel, more than two dozen faith leaders and clergy members from across Austin were joined by community leaders at a rally that called for unity after a recent spate of antisemitic incidents across the city. 
The first of those incidents in recent months was at Anderson High School in West Austin on Oct. 22. Students discovered the campus had been vandalized with multiple swastikas, messages with homophobic language and racist slurs against the Black community. 
The second incident occurred Oct. 23, when about a dozen people displayed a hateful banner from an overpass on North MoPac Boulevard (Loop1). A few members from the same hate group also traveled to East Sixth Street to display similar antisemitic posters. Those members also approached Black and Hispanic people, making statements about the Jewish community that were untrue, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a national group that monitors antisemitic activity. 
This week, antisemitic and racist stickers and flyers were found Tuesday morning at Ramsey Park just blocks from Congregation Beth Israel, according to a report by KXAN-TV. 
In an emailed statement to congregation members Tuesday, Folberg said the smoke damage to the sanctuary is extensive. 
Every surface needs to be scrubbed down at a minimum and much will need to be torn out and replaced,” he wrote, adding that air scrubbers were needed to “break down the chemical compounds that are causing the noxious smell that currently pervades our worship space.”
Folberg said some services will be live-streamed online with the potential to hold Shabbat in person, in the congregation’s Smith Auditorium later this month. 
Support from the community hasn’t stopped pouring in. Since the incident happened, the congregation has received $33,000 in donations to restore the damage left by the fire, he said. 
“The astounding level of encouragement and support that we have received from all over the country has lifted all of our spirits,” Folberg said. “With so many people who heard the news of this terrible incident stepping forward to offer their help and ask where they could make a donation to the Temple’s rebuilding efforts.”
Donations can be made online at bethisrael.org/fireinfo
A Rally for Kindness in solidarity with the Jewish community is set for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Capitol. 
Statesman reporters Heather Osbourne and Luz Moreno-Lozano contributed to this article.
Austin American-Statesman reporter Natalia Contreras can be reached at 512-626-4036 or ncontreras@statesman.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook, @NataliaECG.


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