Man held in connection to fire that destroyed 119-year-old Minnesota synagogue

A man is being held in county jail in connection to the fire that burned down a Minnesota synagogue, police said on Sunday.

Matthew James Amiot, 36, was charged Monday with two counts of starting a negligent fire after lighting a “variety of combustible materials” at the Adas Israel Congregation Synagogue in Duluth, according to a criminal complaint filed Monday.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken told reporters Sunday that Amiot was arrested on Friday and gave a statement to police before files were charged.

“At this moment in time, there is no reason to believe that this is a bias or hate crime,” Tusken said in a Sunday press conference, adding the classification of the crime is subject to change as the investigation continues.

Amiot told police that he lit the fire in a small outdoor alcove space behind the synagogue and tried to spit on the fire to put it out but walked away when it didn’t work, the complaint said Monday.

Ben Amiot said that his brother has been homeless for years and deals with some mental illness. He claimed that his brother was “not the type of person to do this intentionally” and denied claims that it was a hate-motivated crime.

“He was trying to get out of the elements on a cold windy and rainy night in a shed behind the building,” Ben Amiot said. “I feel that the fire started uncontrollably and he panicked and took off instead of alerting authorities. It is not a hate crime and he is not in any kind of supremacy or whatever people are trying to say.”

Duluth police and firefighters responded to a report of a fire early Monday morning and found Adas Israel Congregation, a 119-year-old Orthodox synagogue, in flames.

Although the fire department said no accelerants were used to start the blaze, officials said Sunday that the fire spread quickly throughout the synagogue, which is facing major structural damage.

Firefighters were able to recover some of the synagogue’s religious artifacts early Monday morning. A captain with the Duluth Fire Department was hit by a piece of falling debris while fighting the flames and was treated for a concussion, according to the criminal complaint.

“True Judaism is in the heart, it’s not in the building.” Phillip Sher, rabbi at Adas Israel, said at the Sunday press conference, “We will forge ahead somehow.”

Sher called the fire “extremely difficult” and “extremely sad” and said the synagogue hopes to resume services soon from various locations as they deal with the fallout from the suspected arson.

“We feel the pain and loss and substantial impact for Adas,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said at the press conference. “We continue to offer our heartfelt condolences and prayers and support to the entire Jewish community for their loss.”