A college student was charged with arson and aggravated robbery Wednesday in the brazen early morning attack on the historic Dallas synagogue in the shadow of city’s famous City Hall, authorities said.
The Dallas County district attorney’s office identified the suspect as Robert Morris Jones, 21, a student at Southern Methodist University.
Lt. Don Kelsen of the Dallas Police Department said Jones set fire to a side door at the end of the night shift. No one was inside. A hate crime and other charges were possible.
He was arrested at his apartment after police got a description of his car. In the meantime, investigators spread a search warrant to determine where he lived.
Authorities worked through the night to establish a good description and got some key clues. Kelsen said one tipster told police, “We saw this guy in the apartment. … You’ve got to contact the police.”
The arrest didn’t come immediately. Sgt. Gil Garza said the arrest team hit buildings all around Dallas Wednesday, but to no avail.
“I need an individual, please,” Garza said.
Surveillance video show someone climbing over a fire-extinguisher barricade and shoving a light-up device into the door about 4:40 a.m. Wednesday.
After the man left a security alarm became activated and officers found several men outside, including Jones. He told police he was just smoking a cigarette, but police found a half-smoked cigarette and foil in his pocket, Kelsen said.
So far, there is no evidence the attack was anything other than vandalism, Kelsen said. The synagogue faces the garage of City Hall and was lighted, Kelsen said.
Jones was transferred to Dallas County Jail and bail was set at $200,000.
A second, unidentified suspect was also taken into custody later Wednesday afternoon, Kelsen said.
All of the suspects have given police a different story and have described multiple incidents over the last several days, Kelsen said. The area near the synagogue is in a poorer neighborhood not far from UT-Dallas.
Pastor Philip S. Moe, of the Legacy Community Church, said the loss of this historic synagogue is “deeply saddening.”
Before the attack on Tree of Life synagogue Wednesday morning, there were at least 27 Jewish cemeteries in Dallas. Moe said only six are now open, including the one behind the Beth Oh Synagogue.
“We mourn the loss of life,” Moe said. “We mourn the loss of our beloved community, our beloved synagogue.”
“We welcome everyone. There is no room to hate,” Moe said.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the Morning Calm Synagogue has existed for 73 years. The building was destroyed by a fire in 2007, but kept its congregation together and reinvented itself. It was even listed on the Dallas City Council’s “Heart of Dallas” properties in 2014.
“We have built out a beautiful lighted pavilion,” Lois Mintz said, “and we have a beautiful courtyard … with children and families.”
Speaking before tree-lighting ceremony, Rabbi Lew Rosenbaum said he had expected an afternoon celebration. Instead, the congregation held a somber moment of silence at about 5:45 a.m. As the night fell, they held another moment of silence.
“Today we are living through some of the darkest moments of my 22 years of work here in Dallas,” Rosenbaum said.
Tracy Ferrick’s Jewish son took two hours to get home from work that night and couldn’t help but stare up at the sky. He had experienced worse threats as a Holocaust survivor in Czechoslovakia, she said.
“What is really shocking is that we’re losing our entire community overnight, and without any warning,” Ferrick said.
Beth Oh is a Reform congregation with 50 members, she said. Once that evening lit the night skies, that meant more than 200 people were filled with all the holidays that go with it.
“My son’s friends grew up in this community,” she said. “We’re starting a synagogue here because it’s just a dear part of our community. And it’s like a family.”
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