Duluth Synagogue Fire Suspect Homeless, Brother Says

Duluth police named 36-year-old Matthew James Amiot as the suspect who was arrested Friday afternoon and booked into the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth. He is expected to make his first court appearance midweek; said Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said he is recommending charges of first-degree arson for the fire that destroyed Adas Israel Congregation on Monday morning.

“There is no reason to believe it is a bias or hate crime,” said Tusken. “That may change as the investigation continues. Please understand while an arrest has been made, the investigation is open and active.”

Tusken said that Amiot was arrested in downtown Duluth on Friday. In an interview posted to YouTube, Ben Amiot, the suspect’s brother, told veteran TV anchor Edward Moody that his brother is homeless.

At press conferences earlier in the week, Tusken said that when officers responded to the scene in the early hours of Monday morning, they had contact with two individuals out in the area, getting their names and contact information. He referred to those two as “persons of interest” that police, fire, and Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators were completing follow up interviews with.

Tusken said that neither of those persons interviewed was considered suspects. Tusken also said that evidence was recovered at the scene, as well as “hundreds of hours of video” from nearby cameras, but at that time gave no details.

“When doing investigations, some from information comes from canvassing, some from video,” Tusken said. “(Finding Amiot) was the culmination of all the evidence in what made him a suspect.”

In a statement, Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), thanked all the agencies involved for their work.

“While Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken stated that the current charge of first-degree arson is not being elevated as a bias-motivated or hate crime, the destruction of Adas Israel Congregation remains a tragedy for generations of Jewish Duluthians. Over the past week, we have read moving testimony of family memories that date back a century or more,” he said. “We understand that our Jewish community feels uneasy in this current political and social environment where synagogues, mosques, and predominately black churches have been attacked in recent years. The image of a house of worship ablaze is a searing reminder of the challenges we face with rising antisemitism and bigotry in this country. We ask the public to respect the investigative process and withhold final judgment until the full facts are revealed in the criminal complaint later this week.

“While we are fortunate that there were no fatalities, we note that a courageous Duluth firefighter sustained a concussion injury while combatting the blaze. We also reiterate our thanks to Duluth’s Temple Israel and Chabad synagogues for opening their arms to welcome Adas Israel members who are grieving the loss of their spiritual home.”

Tusken said that he is unaware if Amiot had any prior contact with the synagogue.

Phillip Sher, who has been described as the president of the synagogue, would not speculate to Amiot’s motives.

“As a matter of fact, I would warn everybody, you’re innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “And that’s as it should be. We’re not out for vengeance, all I can find out of this event of sadness for everyone.”

Ben Amiot told Moody that his brother “doesn’t hate anybody” and was trying to find someplace to sleep. “It was really cold and windy and rainy that night,” he said. “he’s been homeless ever since he was a teenager and has been in and out. He had an apartment once or twice and stay with relatives. He’s not all the way there. He’s not capable of holding a job. He needs support for that.”

Listen to Moody’s complete interview:

Fire Chief Shawn Kriszaj said that the said that point of the origin was a shed outside the building and spread to the main building. Confirming what was reported earlier in the week, no accelerant was used, which Kriszaj said was confirmed by both detection devices and a certified arson inspection dog.

The fire department was on the scene after the initial call came in at 2:22 a.m. Monday. One firefighter was injured; Kriszaj said that Capt. Ben Gasner is home recovering with concussion symptoms.

Adas Israel Congregation is an Orthodox/high Conservative congregation with a membership of 60 members. Services are lay-led with daily minyans, Saturday morning and holiday services.

Sher was grateful for the help of all the first responders.

“Their efforts were heroic,” Sher said. “I stood there and watched as they ran into a building I later found out was still burning to go and try to save some of our artifacts, save some of our Torahs, some of our antiquities.”

In the aftermath of the fire, 8 of the synagogue’s 14 Torah scrolls were recovered from the basement of the synagogue. The six that didn’t survive the fire were in the upper level.

Adas Israel was formed in the 1890s by members of the Moses Montefiore congregation, an earlier Orthodox congregation comprised of Lithuanian Jews. By the turn of the 20th century, there were close to 1,500 Jews living in Duluth, most of who were Russian or Eastern European. The building’s cornerstone was laid in 1901. Until the fire last week, it had been the longest actively-used synagogue in Minnesota.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.