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Suspect arrested in synagogue fire, police don’t believe it was a hate crime

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Adelle Whitefoot
Duluth News Tribune

City of Duluth officials announced Sunday the name of the man arrested in connection with the fire that destroyed Adas Israel Congregation synagogue.

Matthew James Amiot, 36, of Duluth was arrested Friday and is being held at St. Louis County Jail on a felony charge of first-degree arson. The News Tribune does not generally name suspects who have not yet been charged but is doing so due to the high-profile nature of the crime.

Amiot has previous convictions for misdemeanor shoplifting and trespassing. Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said Amiot has no permanent address. Court records show Amiot has a history of convictions for shoplifting and trespassing.

The city of Duluth held a Sunday morning news conference regarding the arrest and the ongoing investigation.

“Based on all the information that I have reviewed, that I’ve read and the investigators I have talked to, at this moment in time there is no reason to believe that this is a bias or hate crime,” Tusken said. “This may change as this investigation progresses.”

But Tusken stressed, “this investigation is open and active.”

Tusken laid out the timeline of events related to fire and investigation. Firefighters were called to the synagogue at 2:23 a.m. Sept. 9 on a report of a fire in an outbuilding. The fire started on the northeast side of the building and spread to the synagogue.

Tusken said Amiot was identified as a person of interest on the afternoon of Sept. 9 after police canvassed the area, located as much surveillance video as possible and followed up on leads. Police interviewed two other people last week who happened upon the fire in the morning. Neither are considered suspects.

On Friday, investigators met with assistant St. Louis County Attorney Victoria Wanta to review the investigation, at which time a probable cause warrant for arrest was issued, Tusken said. Amiot was located, arrested in downtown Duluth and interviewed on Friday afternoon.

Tusken would not comment further on Amiot’s motives or how the fire was started, directing people to the criminal complaint that is expected to be filed mid-week with the State District Court in Duluth. Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj did say that no accelerant was found at the scene.

Adas Israel Congregation lay leader Phillip Sher spoke at the news conference, thanking everyone involved in the investigation as well as all of those who have reached out to him and the congregation with support.

“I’ve gone there my whole life and the first thing you think of is an image of where you’re going to go now. We’ll forge ahead. Right now we are making arrangements to begin services again,” Sher said. “True Judaism is in the heart —it’s not in the building — and our legacy will go on with our hearts.”

News of the fire spread throughout the world and has drawn attention on social media.

Related: Tragedy of Adas Israel fire hard to even talk about

A large and intense investigation into the cause of the fire stretched throughout last week, drawing on an estimated 20 investigators with the Duluth police and fire departments, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That particular federal agency gets involved when a house of worship burns.

A Duluth fireman, identified as Ben Gasner, was injured during the fire. Krizaj said Gasner, who has been with the department for 19 years, is recovering at home from a concussion sustained while battling the fire.

The Adas Israel Congregation synagogue is home to a “shul” of Modern Orthodox Jewish families. Built in 1901, the synagogue was the last of its kind in the Northland. To worship in the Modern Orthodox Jewish faith is to practice Jewish law while living out modern lives.

New York author Sarah Rose is a descendant of one of the synagogue’s founders and told the News Tribune Sunday she was relieved to hear the police didn’t suspect it to be a hate crime.

“It’s our biggest fear, and I hope that it continues to be a lack of hate,” Rose said.

Rose called Duluth her ancestral home. She visited relatives and the synagogue often on trips from her childhood home in Chicago. Rose watched the news conference from afar and will continue to follow the story as it plays out in the court system.

“No one here is looking for vengeance,” she said regarding Amiot. “He’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Rose said she has no set plans to come back to Duluth for a visit, but when she did she always assumed Adas Israel was still going to be there.

“I’m not going to visit the ashes of Adas Israel,” she said.

Rose said she’s not only grateful for local authorities as they’ve investigated but also grateful for the people who have kept Adas Israel going as numbers have dwindled over the years.

“I hope they get what they want and what they need. You couldn’t ask for better guys to make those choices,” Rose said talking about David and Phillip Sher. “I think the world of David and Phillip.”

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, also expressed relief in hearing authorities do not believe this was a hate crime at this time.

“We understand that our Jewish community feels uneasy in this current political and social environment where synagogues, mosques, and predominantly black churches have been attacked in recent years,” Hunegs said in a statement sent to the News Tribune Sunday. “The image of a house of worship ablaze is a searing reminder of the challenges we face with rising anti-Semitism and bigotry in this country.”

Hunegs said he asks the public to respect the investigative process and withhold final judgment until the full facts are revealed in the criminal complaint later this week.

The Midwest Anti-Defamation League in Chicago said in a statement on Twitter that it is “relieved investigators don’t believe Adas Israel fire was a hate crime” and that the “response in Duluth is inspiring and ADL stands with the community.”

Mayor Emily Larson spoke at the news conference saying the city continues to offer its “heartfelt condolences, prayers and support to the entire Jewish community for their loss.”

“They will not move forward alone,” Larson said. “This community does incredible things for one another when we need to, and now is a time that we need to.”

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©2019 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

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