A federal grand jury on Friday charged two brothers described as lone wolf white supremacists with torching three capital-area synagogues and an abortion clinic in a series of attacks that sparked outrage across California last summer.
The indictment caps a nine-month investigation of Benjamin Matthew Williams, 32, and James Tyler Williams, 29, who are already awaiting trial in the murder of a gay couple near Redding about the same time as the arsons.
The 13-count indictment alleges that the brothers wanted to set fire to synagogues to provoke further incidents of violence while intimidating Jews and others they regard as “inferior or undesirable.”
Jewish leaders in Sacramento expressed relief at the indictment, but also voiced concern that legal proceedings against the men could give either brother a soapbox for his beliefs.
“I worry it could become a political show trial,” said Rabbi Brad Bloom of Congregation B’nai Israel, which suffered the worst damage in the June 18 arson attacks. “It could give them a platform from which we might hear more than we want about what hatred and intolerance is all about.”
In recent months the elder Williams has confessed--in jailhouse interviews with reporters--to the murders and setting the fires. Benjamin Williams also insists that his younger brother is innocent, a claim investigators reject.
The Sacramento County arsons were the first of a summer of hate crimes across the nation, including Buford Furrow’s alleged attack on a Jewish community center in Granada Hills and a white supremacist’s killing rampage in the Midwest.
Investigators with the FBI and local police said they have substantial physical evidence linking the Williams brothers to the fires, which caused more than $1 million in damage.
Just hours before the June 18 attacks, the indictment alleges, the brothers shopped at Wal-Mart and HomeBase in Redding to purchase supplies used in the arsons. They then drove to Sacramento to torch the synagogues over a half-hour period, according to the indictment.
Historic Temple Was Burned
On July 2, authorities allege, the brothers shopped at a Wal-Mart in Yuba City, then drove into Sacramento County to set fire to the Country Club Medical Building, which houses an abortion clinic.
Benjamin Williams has said he undertook the synagogue arsons along with a team of eight other like-minded accomplices whose identities he didn’t know. Federal officials say they do not believe that the brothers had help, although they are not ruling out the possibility of a third participant.
Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform temple established 150 years ago and considered the oldest synagogue in the West, suffered the worst damage. After months of work, the temple’s sanctuary was reopened last week, but repairs continue on the charred library. Smaller fires damaged Congregation Beth Shalom and Knesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue just outside Sacramento city limits.
In the days after the fires, Sacramento and state leaders voiced outrage, holding a unity rally that drew nearly 5,000 to the civic auditorium. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations also poured in to the congregations to help with rebuilding.
For months afterward members of the Jewish community expressed fear about other possible attacks. Quick steps were taken to boost security at area temples.
“For us this indictment provides a sense of relief,” said Jana Uslan, president of Congregation Beth Shalom. “But our attitude has always been: We will go on; we won’t let terrorists and racists stop us from practicing Judaism.”
Authorities said the brothers were arrested in July as they tried to take delivery of ammunition loading gear they are accused of purchasing with a credit card stolen from the slain gay couple, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder.
The Williamses were quickly charged with the murders, but the arson investigation lasted for months, sparking concern among Jewish leaders. Investigators said privately that charges were delayed by forensic lab tests and a review by top Justice Department officials in Washington.
Investigators also had the luxury of being able to carry out “a very detailed investigation” because the prime suspects were behind bars, said Steve Lapham, an assistant U.S. attorney handling the case.
Arraignment Next Week
The arson charges carry a maximum penalty of 235 years in prison. The brothers face the death penalty if they are found guilty in the Shasta County slayings.
Federal officials said the Williams brothers will be transported from Shasta County Jail to U.S. District Court in Sacramento for arraignment next week. Officials hope to bring the men to trial on the arson counts by fall. The murder trial could be years away because of a court backlog in Shasta County.
The older Williams brother has repeatedly said he is willing to be executed to become a “Christian martyr” whose death will spur more attacks on Jews, homosexuals and members of minority groups.
“The FBI and [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] are using this as PR to justify their vile existence,” Benjamin Williams said in a recent interview. “They’re just trying to prove they’re protecting America even though they burn children in Waco and shoot mothers in Idaho.”
Benjamin Williams said the slaying of the gay couple was justified as an execution because they had violated biblical law. He said his defense in the murder case will be based on his belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a crime punishable by death.
Lapham said he doubts any judge will allow Williams to break the decorum of a trial to espouse his beliefs. He also raised questions about Williams using religion to battle charges in court.
“That’s no defense,” he said. “The Bible is no justification for murder or arson or any other crime.”