Matthew James Amiot has been charged with one felony count of “negligent fires” and a misdemeanor charge for “negligent fires causing bodily harm” in the blaze that destroyed Duluth’s Adas Israel Congregation. The charges were filed Monday morning by the St. Louis County Attorney. He was arrested and booked into the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth on Friday, where is he still being held, for first-degree arson.
The charge of causing bodily harm came from falling debris injured one Duluth firefighter, Capt. Ben Gasner. Fire Chief Shawn Kriszaj said Sunday that Gasner is recovering from concussion symptoms. The felony charge carries a maximum punishment of 3-years in prison and/or a fine of $5,000. The misdemeanor carries 1-year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.
At Monday morning’s first court appearance, bail was set at $20,000.
According to the complaint: Amiot “is seen walking behind the Adas Israel Congregation Synagogue at 302 E. Third St., in Duluth, St. Louis County, Minnesota. Abutting the back of the synagogue is a separate religious structure, called a sukkah. The placement of the sukkah behind the synagogue creates a small outdoor alcove space that is approximately two feet wide. It is in the area of this alcove that the defendant took a lighter and lit a variety of combustible materials on fire. At 2:15 a.m., the Defendant is seen walking away from the synagogue and looking back at the flickering flames. Squads arrived at 2:22 a.m. to 3-foot tall flames coming from the alcove area.”
The complaint said Amoit admitted to starting the fire. Amiot told police he tried to extinguish the fire by spitting on it but “when it would not go out, he walked away.”
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said at a press conference on Sunday that he was recommending charges of first-degree arson for the fire.
“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.”
Amiot’s brother Ben Amiot, the suspect’s brother, told veteran TV anchor Edward Moody that his brother is homeless. He also said 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:
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.
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.”
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.
Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in a statement that: “The criminal complaint filed today confirms law enforcement’s belief that the fire at Adas Israel Congregation was not started intentionally nor was it an act motivated by antisemitism.
Still, the loss of a historic synagogue building, six Torah scrolls, and other holy artifacts is immensely painful for the congregants of Adas Israel and Jews across our region. We reiterate our thanks to law enforcement for their diligence and professionalism throughout this investigation.”
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.