LOS ANGELES — Alarmed at a string of recent arson attacks against synagogues and other religious institutions in the affluent San Fernando Valley, residents of this city were relieved last weekend when a suspect was arrested — and then shocked when the suspect was identified as a Jewish immigrant from Iran.
Farshid Tehrani, 40, is accused of carrying out five arson attacks in 11 days against houses of worship along Ventura Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through the Valley. Between April 26 and May 6, firebombs described by authorities as
Molotov cocktails were set off at two synagogues, one Jewish educational center, a Baha’i community center and a Presbyterian church.
Although no one was harmed in any of the fires, they caused an estimated $200,000 in property damage.
Police arrested the suspect May 9 but declined to identify him, saying the investigation was ongoing. His identity was disclosed the following day by the Los Angeles Times, in an investigative story that angered police officials and stunned the Jewish community. He was arraigned May 13 on a string of criminal counts including arson, terrorism and vandalism of a religious property. Several of the charges were labeled hate crimes in the complaint. He pleaded innocent to all charges.
“While the community is relieved that an arrest has been made, we are in deep shock over the possibility that the perpetrator might be someone from our own community,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, in a prepared statement after Tehrani was identified. “We can not begin to imagine what would motivate someone like that to commit such atrocities. This obviously can not be the work of a healthy mind.”
Before the arrest, speculation was rampant that the bombings were the work of a terrorist of Arab or Muslim background. The lack of an Islamic target, and the fact that one of the attacks took place against a synagogue on Israel Independence Day, reinforced the speculation.
The investigation involved what observers were calling one of the largest law enforcement mobilizations in recent California history. More than 150 police, fire department, FBI and other federal investigators worked on the case, including detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-terrorism unit, Assistant Police Chief Jim McDonnell told the Forward.
A day before Tehrani’s arrest, an interfaith service was held to signal support for the targeted institutions. The event, organized by the Southern California Board of Rabbis, included representatives from Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, Christian and Jewish organizations, in addition to politicians and police representatives.
Tehrani was arrested May 9 while trying to set fire to a garbage can in Westwood, where the University of California Los Angeles is located.
An Iranian immigrant who came to the United States about 16 years ago, Tehrani ran a jewelry business until two years ago, when he quit working, reportedly due to severe depression.
According to the Times, Tehrani’s arson spree may have been sparked by a personal dispute with Rabbi Moshe Hafuta, who works with the Iranian Da’at synagogue, one of the arson targets. Hafuta reportedly moved out of an apartment that he was renting from Tehrani over disputes about faulty appliances and water service. Tehrani is believed to have started a blaze at the apartment, which was torched shortly before the fires began on Ventura Boulevard.
According to several news reports, which have not been confirmed, Tehrani was tailed by authorities for at least a day before his arrest, after an anonymous phone call said he might have something to do with the fires.
“The silver lining in all of this is that it really brings out the best in people, and there has been an incredible outpouring of support, not only from individuals but from our fellow religious centers,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, one of the synagogues that was attacked.
Although the Iranian synagogue was the first Jewish institution to be hit, the attack on Valley Beth Shalom came as a particular shock to the Jewish community citywide because it occurred on the morning of Israel Independence Day. A sprawling institution with 1,700 families and its own day school, Valley Beth Shalom is one of the largest and best known congregations in Los Angeles.
The synagogue was attacked at 6:30 a.m. on May 7 with a firebomb thrown through a stained glass window into the sanctuary, where it landed on the bimah. A Hispanic Catholic employee who was in the sanctuary at the time carried the Torah scrolls to safety, while the fire was put out by the synagogue’s sprinkler system.
— The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.