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June 18, 1999

Arson Caused Calif. Synagogue Fires

by Doug Willis Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Three synagogues were hit by coordinated arson attacks today, and hate literature blaming the "Jewish media" for the war in Kosovo was found at one of the buildings.

The fires caused moderate damage to two synagogues and gutted a third temple's library, destroying a collection of videos on Jewish history.

Federal officials were at the scenes, investigating the fires as hate crimes.

Investigators took one youth into custody and were seeking several others who were seen near Congregation B'nai Israel, where the library was broken into and set on fire.

Because of the timing and spacing of the synagogues, one person could not have set all three fires, authorities said

A flier from an organization calling itself the North Atlantic Terrorist Organization was found at the Knesset Israel Torah Center by KOVR-TV.

"The ugly American and NATO aggressors are the ultimate hypocrites. The fake Albanian refugee crisis was manufactured by the Jewish media to justify the terrorizing, the bestial bombing of our Yugoslavia back into the dark ages," the flier reads.

The first blaze was reported at 3:24 a.m. at B'nai Israel in downtown Sacramento. The second was called in at 3:48 a.m. at Congregation Beth Shalom in suburban Carmichael, and the third 10 minutes later at Knesset Israel Torah Center, in northeastern Sacramento County, Sheriff's Lt. Jim Cooper said.

In the area of B'nai Israel, police saw four youths who ran when they saw the patrol car. One of the youths was caught and was being questioned. "Nobody's under arrest," said police Officer Eric Walker.

The worst damage was at B'nai Israel, where a library used by a nonreligious private school was destroyed and offices were damaged. The library housed what was described as a "Jewish heritage video collection," including Holocaust videos, children's videos and other films relating to Jewish culture.

At Beth Shalom, the sanctuary was damaged but the sprinkler system halted the fire on the first floor.

"It's disturbing to be a target of this kind of activity," said Beth Shalom member Debby Nelson. "But I feel fortunate. They attempted to do real damage. We have a good security and fire alarm system. It stopped them in their tracks."

"This is my temple," said Estelle Opper, a member of B'nai Israel. "I am heart-stricken."

"You're dealing with a sick mind," a distraught Rabbi Joseph Melamed of Beth Shalom told television station KXTV. "There's no question about it."

A national church arson task force documented 670 attacks on houses of worship between January 1995 and September 1998. Of those, 33 were in California and one in Sacramento, a Baptist church.

"It is pretty rare generally speaking for three synagogues to be hit all in a row like this," said Jonathan Bernstein of the Anti-Defamation League's San Francisco office. "It's obviously a sign that there was planning involved. It wasn't just a spontaneous act."

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

Detective Stories from our Case Book:

WHILE there is as yet no reason to doubt that antisemites carried out the despicable arson attacks reported above, we recall that similar arson fires in 1983 terrorized the Jewish community in Hartford, Connecticut, and evoked media comparisons with Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass."

Within a short period of time, arson fires were set at Young Israel Synagogue, Emmanual Synagogue, the home of Rabbi Solomon Krupa and the home of State Representative Joan Kemler, who was also Jewish.

Enormous police resources were devoted to solving the crimes, and, meanwhile, nation-wide media attention was focussed on the fires, resulting in several different legislative initiatives being tabled to combat so-called "bigotry and violence."

For a time, police teams staked out a number of Hartford neighbourhoods, with an idea that a repetition of the arsonist's crimes would lead to his capture.

Barry Dov Schuss, a 17-year-old Jewish student, was an early suspect in the case. Eventually, he confessed to having set all four fires.

While the combined total for several counts of arson could well have meant that he would spend the rest of his life in prison (had Schuss turned out to have been a genuine anti-Semite), the arsonist in this case got a suspended sentence, was told to undergo psychiatric treatment, and then put on 5 years' probation.

Schuss described himself as an avid reader of Holocaust literature, and finally confessed to setting several Jewish-owned properties ablaze in order to enhance public awareness of anti-Semitism.

December 14, 1983

Fires at Connecticut Jewish Sites Laid to a Synagogue Member, 17

by Richard L. Madden

West Hartford, Conn., Dec. 13--A 17-year-old Jewish youth, a member of a synagogue that was damaged that was damaged by arson last summer, was arrested here today and charged with that fire and three others.

In addition to the synagogue to which the youth belonged, the fires damaged another synangue and two homes belonging to members of West Hartford's Jewish community.

The suspect, Barry Dov Schuss, surrendered voluntarily to the West Hartford police this morning and was charged with four counts of second-degree arson. The police said his arrest closed the cases.

The police said that Mr. Schuss had been a psychiatric in-patient at an unidentified Connecticut hospital when he decided to surrender. Judge Joseph Morelli of Superior Court ordered him returned to the hospital until another court appearance on Jan. 4.

Community Upset by the Arsons

The large Jewish community in West Hartford had been badly shaken by the fires, which occurred Aug. 11 at the young Israel Synagogue; August 15 at the Emanuel Synagogue; August 16 at the home of Rabbi Solomon Krupka, the leader of the Young Israel congregation, and Sept. 16 at the home of State Representative Joan Kemler, who is Jewish. No one was injured in the fires, though there was extensive property damage.

Mr. Schuss and his family were members of the Young Israel Synagogue, the police said.

Mr. Schuss, a lanky youth wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a blue parka and brown pants, said little at his arraignment in Superior Court as a crowd of reporters and representatives of the Jewish community looked on in silence.

Appearing with Mr. Schuss in court were Rabbi Krupka, whose home and synagogue were burned; Mr. Schuss' father, John, of West Hartford, and his attorney, John Downey. They left without talking to reporters.

'No Specific Reason'

At a news conference later, Francis Reynolds, the West Hartford police chief, said the youth had given "no specific reason" for setting the fires.

Chief Reynolds said Mr. Schuss had been a prime suspect for some time in the fires but declined to provide further information about Mr. Schuss's background and family.

Representative Kemler, whose home was damaged and who watched the proceedings today, said she had never heard of Mr. Schuss. "I'm releived that it's over," she said.

John M. Bailey, the State's Attorney or prosecutor, for the Hartford area, said Mr. Schuss gave the authorities "a complete statement concerning his involvement in the arsons, and he takes full responsibility for them."

Chief Reynolds said the police were certain Mr. Schuss set the fires, based on information he had provided in his statement. "We believe Mr. Schuss acted alone," Mr. Reynolds added.

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