Two gangly brothers described as white supremacists pleaded guilty Friday to setting fires that severely damaged three synagogues and an abortion clinic during a wave of terror in the summer of 1999.
Benjamin Matthew Williams, 33, and James Tyler Williams, 31, entered the pleas as part of a deal with prosectors that clears the way for a trial next year on charges that the pair murdered a gay couple.
The elder Williams, dubbed the ringleader of the synagogue attacks, faces 30 years in federal prison for the arsons under the agreement approved Friday by U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. Williams’ younger brother could get more than 21 years behind bars.
Jewish leaders in Sacramento expressed relief with the plea, which avoided a prolonged trial that many worried could give the brothers a soapbox to espouse anti-Semitic hatred.
“The wounds that were inflicted, which ran so deep, today are beginning to heal,” said Louis J. Anapolsky, president of Congregation B’nai Israel, the most damaged of the synagogues. Candice Fields, chairwoman of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the guilty pleas “achieved our goal to hear them admit to their crimes.”
The Sacramento County arsons were the first of a rash of hate crimes across the nation in the summer of 1999, including Buford Furrow’s attack on a Jewish community center in Granada Hills and a white supremacist’s killing rampage in the Midwest.
After sentencing Nov. 2 for the fires, the Williams brothers face an April trial for the Shasta County slayings of Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, a gay couple shot to death July 1, 1999, in their bed at home outside Redding. The brothers have pleaded not guilty, but could get the death penalty if convicted.
“The main event, the murder trial, is yet to come,” Brian Matson, brother of one of the victims, said after the plea deal. “These arsons were just part of a single, hate-inspired spree of terrorism for which they must pay with their lives.”
In jailhouse interviews with reporters after his arrest, the elder Williams confessed to the murders and setting the fires. He talked of mounting a Bible-based defense against the various charges and insisted that his younger brother was innocent, a claim investigators reject.
The older Williams also told reporters that he is willing to be executed to become a “Christian martyr” whose death will spur more attacks on Jews, homosexuals and members of other minority groups. In an interview with The Times after the slayings, he said the killings were justified as “an execution” because homosexuality is a violation of biblical law.
Despite such earlier pronouncements, the two brothers remained mostly solemn during an hourlong hearing in Burrell’s court Friday.
Garbed in orange jail jumpsuits, looking gaunt and tousle-haired, the pair answered the judge’s questions in muted tones.
The only prolonged exchange came when Burrell asked James Tyler Williams if his older brother’s willingness to plead guilty had influenced his own decision to strike a deal with prosecutors.
“It couldn’t help but have an effect,” the younger sibling said. “He’s my brother.”
The arson blazes broke out early on June 18, 1999. Flames were reported about 3:30 a.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel, causing more than $1 million damage to the venerable Reform temple, which is considered the oldest synagogue in the West.
In the next half hour, smaller fires damaged Congregation Beth Shalom and Knesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue just outside Sacramento. A week later, an arson blaze damaged a medical building in suburban Sacramento County that houses an abortion clinic.
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 poured in to the congregations to help the rebuilding effort.
The brothers were arrested the next month as they tried to take delivery of ammunition-loading gear they are accused of purchasing with a credit card stolen from the gay couple.
Prosecutors allege that the brothers wanted to torch the synagogues to provoke further incidents of violence while intimidating Jews and others they regard as inferior or undesirable.