BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Birmingham police have announced formal charges against Gregory Earl Fuller, Jr., in connection to a fire on the property of Temple Beth-El, a historic synagogue in the city. The temple’s rabbi has said the incident was not antisemitic.
According to a press release issued by Birmingham Police, Fuller was charged with second-degree arson and is being held in the Jefferson County Jail on a $30,000 bond.
Fuller was taken into custody by the FBI just after noon on Friday in Birmingham after a propane tank and clothes that had been set on fire were found near Temple Beth-El.
According to a statement from the Birmingham Police Department, officers responded to the synagogue on Friday morning around 5:50 a.m. to reports of a fire. First responders who arrived at the scene “observed a propane tank and clothing which had been set on fire in the area,” the statement said.
After police had responded to the early morning fire call, security for the Jewish federation notified local police and the FBI around 8:30 a.m. of a suspicious package in the bushes just outside the synagogue.
When law enforcement responded to the scene, they found the backpack to be suspicious as well, police said.
“Once our techs got on the scene, they were not able to tell what was in the backpack, but what they observed was alarming,” Fitzgerald said.
Law enforcement used robotic technology to retrieve the backpack and transported it to a secure location where it can be inspected, according to Fitzgerald. During the investigation, it was determined that the backpack did not contain any explosives.
“We are working hand in hand with the FBI to determine if there are any criminal charges that will be filed in this incident,” Fitzgerald said in a statement posted on social media Friday afternoon.
Prior to BPD’s announcement that a person of interest had been taken into custody, Fitzgerald had referenced a previous incident at the church but did not reveal that the incident had occurred on Friday morning. That case “wasn’t as extreme,” Fitzgerald had said, and police were able to eliminate any threat.
Friday’s event occurred a day after federal law enforcement in New Jersey warned local synagogues about a generalized threat toward Jewish institutions in the state. That larger context, Fitzgerald said, is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
“Our Jewish community has always been targeted, and it makes you just want to wrap your arms around them and do what you can to protect them,” Fitzgerald said.
People like Larry Brook, editor of the Southern Jewish Life Magazine, said events like these serve as a chilling illustration of the fear Jews live in every day.
”It just highlights how we’ve always had to be vigilant,” Brook said. “People don’t realize the amount of security we have every time we open our doors. Being Jewish in this society, unfortunately, we have to take all sorts of necessary precautions.”
Drew Taylor and David Lamb contributed reporting to this story.