Indictments issued in Sacramento synagogue arsons

Two months after one of the suspects admitted to the crimes, the Justice Department finally acts in a high-profile hate case.

Published March 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

After a nine-month investigation, federal officials announced Friday they have indicted white supremacist brothers Matthew and Tyler Williams on charges of torching three Sacramento-area synagogues last summer.

The indictments will include charges that the two also set a fire at a medical building in Sacramento two weeks after the synagogue fires as part of an attack against an abortion clinic inside the structure, sources say.

Both brothers are in jail awaiting trial on two murder charges in Redding, 180 miles north of Sacramento. The murders and arsons seemed to kick off a nationwide hate spree that rocked the country last summer, when they were followed by the Midwest shooting rampage by Benjamin Smith, a former World Church of the Creator adherent, and the Jewish day care killings in Los Angeles blamed on white supremacist Buford Furrow Jr.

The long-awaited indictments brought a sense of relief to Sacramento's Jewish community, where leaders have been extremely frustrated by the slow pace of the probe.

Law-enforcement officials have said there was little reason to hurry since both brothers already were in jail on the murder charges, but in recent months even they have expressed dismay at how long the case has taken to win approval in Washington.

In an extremely unusual process, the Williams case was reviewed at the Justice Department by the criminal section of the civil rights division, the anti-terrorism unit of the criminal division and the appellate unit directly under Attorney General Janet Reno. The attorney general also personally signed off on the case.

The sensitive nature of the case stems from concern that the synagogue fires might have been related to other hate crimes that plagued the nation last year, including the Smith and Furrow killings.

The trials for the Williams brothers are expected to be explosive, particularly because of Matthew Williams' unpredictable behavior since his arrest.

Although his younger brother has said nothing publicly since their arrests, Matthew has been outspoken in professing his anti-Semitic, anti-gay, white supremacist beliefs.

He has grown a Hitler-like mustache while in jail, and has talked about wanting to wear a Nazi-style uniform in court.

Williams has made it clear that he wants to use his murder trial as a platform to espouse his views, and has said his defense in the murder case will be based on his belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality and that killing gay people is not a violation of God's law.

In recent months he has admitted to reporters that he committed the murders he is accused of because the two men were gay; that he was one of a group of eight or nine men who torched the synagogues last June; and that he helped set a fire two weeks after that aimed at destroying a Sacramento abortion clinic.

"This case is strictly a walk in the park," cracked his frustrated attorney, Frank J. O'Connor. "It's the client control that's so good."

Despite constant pleas from O'Connor that Williams clam up, the young landscaper and survivalist has continued his bid for publicity for his anti-Semitic, anti-gay and racist views.

In an interview with the Sacramento Bee in January, Williams gave his most detailed accounting yet of how and why he set the fires at three synagogues June 18.

"It was the state capital," Williams said. "It just seemed to be a good hit."

According to his account, Williams assembled the gasoline and oil firebombs used at the synagogues himself. He said he and two other men set the most extensive blaze, which damaged a large portion of Congregation B'nai Israel at 3 a.m.

"I was real nervous. Getting caught was an issue. Just the excitement of it, coming in and having the alarm go off, and I knew I was crossing the Rubicon. It was the cusp of my life where I was putting faith in my beliefs."

He claimed that two other teams of men acting at the same time set fires at Congregation Beth Shalom and Knesset Israel Torah Center, but that he did not know their names because they intentionally kept their identities from each other. He also says his brother Tyler had nothing to do with the crimes.

The Justice Department, it should be noted, does not believe all of Williams' claims. He was indicted in all three arsons, and so was his brother.

He claimed his involvement started when he attended a "Preparedness Expo" in Sacramento last February, a three-day event geared toward survivalists that attracted militia followers and anti-government zealots who were trying to whip up Y2K fears and capitalize on them politically and financially.

"I had on a blue backpack and I put one of those National Alliance fliers on the back of it," Williams said, referring to the anti-Semitic hate group. "It said, 'The White Race, The Earth's Most Endangered Species.'

"I had that clipped to the back of my backpack hoping to meet up with someone of like interests."

Williams said a man from Sacramento "was really impressed with the flier" and invited him to join his secret organization. But to get into the exclusive group, he needed to prove his loyalty and "do something of significance for the movement," Williams said.

That led the committed anti-Semite to conclude that firebombing some synagogues might be the ticket.

The group met in the predawn hours of June 18 at a strip mall. "We all met at a central spot and passed out the fuel," he said.

From there, they fanned out in three different groups, with Williams and two others headed toward Congregation B'nai Israel.

One man waited in the car as a lookout. Williams said he went in first and poured the gas and oil mixture onto the floor of the temple library, where books and rare religious manuscripts are stored.

A third man trailed with a fireplace lighter and two backup Bic cigarette lighters to set the mixture ablaze.

"We were all pretty excited about it," Williams said. "I was in kind of a hurry. They were, too, I guess. We left behind a box with writing on it in the library and I think one of the (fuel) jugs.

"I told them I hoped it burned because it could be used as evidence. The library was burning well, so I thought that would all be burned up."

After the fires were set, the groups met back at the strip-mall parking lot and headed back to their homes. Williams claimed the men hailed from south Sacramento, areas farther south of the city and the Bay Area. He said he never saw or heard from them again.

Williams said his success in the arsons led him toward more actions. "It did embolden me," he said, adding that after he got away with the fires it made it easier to commit what he termed the "homo-cides."

He confessed those killings to the Bee in November, and has been awaiting trial in a case that he clearly hopes will give him a soapbox.

Williams has said that he wants to present a defense based on his belief that killing Matson and Mowder was not a crime because his interpretation of God's will is that homosexuals should die.

Whether a court is going to allow such a defense is doubtful, and sources now say it may be years before he gets a chance at such an effort. Instead, he and his brother, Tyler, may be pulled out of the Shasta County Jail to face the federal arson charges first.

"Even if there were no federal charges, this case couldn't be tried before 2002," said O'Connor. "I want to resolve this thing, and I think our case should go first because it has extremely serious charges. But if the federal government wants to do something, it's out of our control."

Family members of the victims, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, already have resigned themselves to the fact that the murder case will not come to trial.

"At this stage, we have great confidence and trust in our own district attorney and the local authorities," said Oscar Matson, Gary Matson's father. "And if it should happen that the federal arson case comes up first, I don't think any of us would have any objections.

"It might even help the case up here. I'm happy the alleged murderers are behind bars and not loose on the public."

By Sam Stanton

Sam Stanton and Gary Delsohn have covered the Williams case for the Sacramento Bee.

MORE FROM Sam Stanton

By Gary Delsohn

Gary Delsohn and Sam Stanton have covered the Williams case for the Sacramento Bee.

MORE FROM Gary Delsohn

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Anti-semitism Religion