Suspect charged in fire that destroyed synagogue

Published 6:20 pm Monday, September 16, 2019

DULUTH — Prosecutors on Monday charged a homeless man with causing a fire that destroyed a historic synagogue in northeastern Minnesota.

Matthew James Amiot, 36, is charged with two counts of setting a negligent fire. A judge set his bail at $20,000 and Amiot remained in jail.

Amiot was arrested Friday in the Sept. 9 fire at the Adas Israel Congregation in downtown Duluth. The police chief said Sunday that he didn’t believe the fire was a hate crime.

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In the criminal complaint, investigators allege that Amiot set fire to combustible materials in a small alcove between the synagogue and a religious structure called a sukkah. Amiot told investigators he tried to spit on the fire and walked away when it would not go out, the complaint states.

The synagogue was destroyed and only eight of 14 Torah scrolls, the holy books of Judaism, that were inside could be saved. The lost religious antiquities in the synagogue were worth at least $250,000, according to the complaint.

One firefighter suffered a concussion fighting the blaze.

Amiot’s public defender, Natasha VanLieshout, said in court that Amiot denies the allegations and that he “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the Star Tribune reported.

The suspect’s brother, Ben Amiot, said Matthew Amiot has been homeless for years and was trying to stay warm when the fire started.

“He’s not the type of person to do this intentionally,” Ben Amiot said. “He was trying to get out of the elements on a cold windy and rainy night in a shed behind the building. I feel that the fire started uncontrollably and he panicked and took off instead of alerting authorities.”

Investigators said no accelerants were found.

In addition to the felony charge of setting a negligent fire, the defendant faces a gross misdemeanor count of causing a fire that injured someone.

Prosecutor Vicky Wanta told The Associated Press on Monday that she could not comment because the investigation is still active.

Tusken said police previously have had “multiple contacts” with Amiot, who is due back in court Oct. 8.

According to its website, the Adas Israel Congregation is an Orthodox/High Conservative Jewish congregation with 75 members. Construction of the synagogue was completed in 1902.