FRIDAY, MARCH 17, 2000

(202) 514-2007


TDD (202) 514-1888



WASHINGTON, D.C. - A federal grand jury in Sacramento today indicted two Palo Cedro, California men for allegedly setting fire to three synagogues and an abortion clinic in the Sacramento area last summer, the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) announced.

The 13-count indictment, returned in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, charged Benjamin Matthew Williams, 32, and his brother James Tyler Williams, 29, with conspiring "to destroy and close synagogues, reproductive health facilities and other targeted buildings, and to thereby provoke further incidents of violence and to intimidate, terrorize and harm Jews, providers of reproductive health services, and other groups of persons whom the defendants regarded as inferior or undesirable.

"Today's indictments represent an important milestone in the investigation of these heinous crimes," said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement James E. Johnson. "Consistent with the objectives of the National Church Arson Task Force, Federal investigators and prosecutors, in coordination with state and local authorities, worked tirelessly to ensure that those responsible for these terrible acts would be brought to justice."

In the early morning hours of June 18, 1999, the defendants are accused of breaking into three synagogues -- the Congregation B'Nai Israel, the Congregation Beth Shalom, and the Kenesset Israel Torah Center -- and setting them on fire, sustaining significant damage. At two of the sites, authorities found anti-semitic leaflets. Then, in the early morning hours of July 2, Choice Medical Group clinic, located in a medical building in Sacramento, was the scene of an arson, as well.

"Church arson not only burns buildings, but also robs people of their feelings of safety and acceptance in their places of worship," said Bill Lann Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights. "These crimes will not be tolerated, and the federal government remains steadfast in our efforts to prosecute each and every incident to the fullest extent of the law."

According to Assistant U.S. Attorneys R. Steven Lapham and Benjamin B. Wagner, who are prosecuting the case, count one of the indictment charges the Williams brothers with engaging in a conspiracy to commit arson. The maximum penalty for the conspiracy count is five years in prison.

Counts two, five, eight, and eleven each charge the Williams brothers with arson in connection with each individual arson attack at the four different Sacramento locations. Each arson count carries a mandatory minimum penalty of five years in prison, and a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Counts three, six and nine each charge the Williams brothers with destroying religious property in connection with the three attacks on the Sacramento area Synagogues. Each count of destroying religious property carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Count twelve charges the Williams brothers with interfering with commerce by violence, in connection with the arson attack on the reproductive health services clinic. The maximum penalty for count twelve is 20 years in prison.

Finally, counts four, seven, ten and thirteen each charges the Williams brothers with using fire to commit a felony. If convicted on each of those counts, the penalty would be a mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison for the first conviction, and a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison for the other convictions, each sentence to run consecutive to any other incarceration imposed. The Williams brothers could also be ordered to pay fines of up to $250,000 per count of conviction, and restitution to the victim organizations.

The Williams brothers are currently in custody in Shasta County, California on unrelated state murder charges for their alleged participation in the killing of a gay couple. It is anticipated that they will be brought to Sacramento for arraignment on the federal charges in the near future.

The indictment was the result product of an extensive investigation by a joint task force led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Other agencies that contributed to the investigation include the U.S. Secret Service, the Sacramento Sheriff's Office, the Sacramento Police Department, the Sacramento District Attorney's Office, the Shasta County Sheriff's Department, the Sacramento City Fire Department, the American River Fire Protection District, and the California Highway Patrol.

The National Church Arson Task Force was established by President Clinton in June 1996 and continues to investigate arsons at houses of worship. The NCATF represents a coordinated effort of local, state and federal agencies, led by the Departments of Justice and Treasury, to investigate and prosecute arson attacks on houses of worship, as well as assist communities in the wake of fires. The other federal agencies include HUD, the FBI, the ATF, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Community Relations Service. As reported in the Third Year Report of the NCATF, released in January, the Task Force had opened investigations into 827 arsons, bombings and attempted bombings that occurred at houses of worship between January 1, 1995 and October 5, 1999. Federal, state and local authorities have arrested 364 suspects in connection with 294 incidents.The NCATF's 35.6% arrest rate is more than double the rate of arson arrests nationwide.

It should be noted that an indictment is only an accusation . The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.