As the man who plotted to bomb Colorado’s second-oldest synagogue prepares to start serving his prison sentence, Pueblo’s Jewish community feels not hate, but gratitude, and even sympathy.
Michael Atlas-Acuna, president of the board of directors for Pueblo’s Temple Emanuel, said Monday he and members of the congregation are “all very filled with gratitude.”
“I think justice has been served,” he said.
“We all feel like the system worked. The judiciary system worked properly and the police department, sheriff’s department and FBI all did their part to make all of this work.”
Richard Holzer was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court to a 19 ½ year federal prison term. He pleaded guilty last October to attempted arson and attempt to obstruct persons in the enjoyment of their free exercise of religious beliefs through force and the attempted use of explosives and fire.
Holzer’s intention was to blow up the synagogue before dawn on Nov. 2, 2019, but he was arrested a day earlier. The incident sent shockwaves through the Jewish community as well as the community of Pueblo and reverberated throughout the country and nation.
The first service after Holzer’s arrest drew 350 people to the synagogue to express solidarity.
Sympathy for Holzer
Although he believes the sentence Holzer, 28, will serve is fair, Atlas-Acuna also expressed empathy for the defendant.
“I am very sympathetic to him. He was a fetal-alcohol-syndrome baby and he had a very tough life,” Atlas-Acuna said.
He was able to view a video interview of Holzer’s foster parents and learned the difficulties the parents encountered raising Holzer from infancy to adulthood.
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“It was very moving. He was never right and he’s very vulnerable to be exploited,” he said.
At the end of the video, Holzer’s foster parents apologized to the congregation of Temple Emanuel.
“They were both crying and they just apologized. That teared my eyes up for sure.
“He knows right from wrong and he did wrong. I really worry that he is going to be abused in prison if he is not protected,” Atlas-Acuna said.
As media poured into Pueblo to cover the incident, Atlas-Acuna’s comment to a news outlet explaining an effort to generate funds to get a new security system provided the catalyst for lasting security changes at the synagogue.
“The money just started coming in from the Pueblo community and not necessarily from Jews either because there are not many of us here. But money came in also from Canada, across the United States and Israel,” he said.
A total of $10,000 in donations was made.
The temple now has a “very elaborate camera security system that watches the property 24 hours a day,” including both inside and outside the temple and the neighboring social hall, he said.
“I can see on my phone those cameras,” Atlas-Acuna said. “We also have a security system so if someone tries to breech the buildings the alarm system goes off and I am notified and the police are notified.
“We do have members that are armed. So if anyone ever tried to break in and shoot at us they would be very surprised because they are going to get return fire.
“Just think what it was like in 1900 when the synagogue was built — everyone was carrying a gun in the Wild West — so I am thinking it is probably just history repeating itself.”
As a precaution during high-holy day services, a security guard is on site as the Jewish community worships. The Pueblo Police Department also continues to monitor activity at the synagogue during routine patrols.
“As an example, the other day I had some contractors out front looking at the building because we are going to have some work done on it. They were taking pictures and the police saw them and immediately called and wanted to know if they had any authority to be there,” Atlas-Acuna said, assuring the police the contractors were welcome.
He said the congregation of Temple Emanuel is looking forward to a return to normalcy after the bombing plot and the ensuing coronavirus pandemic that has limited their ability to interact with one another.
It is the second-oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi River that has had continued use. Pueblo’s Jewish community wants to keep that distinction going.
“Since COVID happened we haven’t seen a lot of interaction, but just now things are starting to open back up since the cases are down and the vaccine is out there,” he said.
Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business and Fremont County news. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or via Twitter at twitter.com/tracywumps.