DULUTH – Investigators found no evidence of a hate crime in last week’s arson that destroyed a historic synagogue here, authorities said Sunday as they described an arrest in the blaze they allege was set by a 36-year-old Duluth drifter.
But the fire that destroyed the nearly 120-year-old Adas Israel Congregation building is still an open case, they added.
Police arrested Matthew J. Amiot on suspicion of felony arson and gave few details of a possible motive in the fire, which originated in a small structure outside the synagogue building on the congregation’s property early the morning of Sept. 9.
No accelerants were found at the scene, officials said.
“At this moment in time, there is no reason to believe this is a bias or hate crime,” Police Chief Mike Tusken said. “This may change as the investigation progresses.”
Amiot has had previous contact with the law, including nearly a dozen misdemeanor convictions for trespassing, burglary and theft. He has no known permanent address, Tusken said. Officials said they were unaware of him having any previous contact with the synagogue.
The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects until they are charged, except in some high-profile cases.
Reached at home, Amiot’s father, Dennis Amiot, said he visited his son in the St. Louis County jail on Saturday and called his son “innocent.”
“He’s not a hateful person,” the elder Amiot said. “He was just in the wrong place at the right time. They’re looking for somebody to pin it on. … My kid’s a pretty mellow kid.”
Dennis Amiot said his son is a “couch surfer,” sleeping where he can, and is on disability because of “mental issues.”
Blaze spread quickly
Officials were careful not to share many details Sunday on how the blaze ignited, saying more information will be revealed in a criminal complaint expected to be filed in court this week.
After starting in the congregation’s sukkah, a tent-like hut for use during the festival of Sukkot, the fire quickly spread to the synagogue, the building’s age and internal structure making it difficult to stop flames from engulfing it, they said.
Fire investigators looked for accelerants which are “usually an indication of people’s intent,” Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said.
Nobody was in the synagogue at the time of the blaze after 2 a.m., but Fire Capt. Ben Gasner was treated and released from a hospital after being struck by falling debris.
The congregation’s past president, Phillip Sher, heaped praise on the heroic acts of firefighters who saved religious artifacts, as well as investigators who spent hours interviewing witnesses and reviewing surveillance tapes from the area.
He said he did not know of the suspect and would not speculate on the man’s motives.
“I would warn everybody,” Sher said, “... innocent until proven guilty, and that’s America as it should be.”
Community steps up
Sher said the outpouring of support to his congregation has been “tremendous” locally, nationally and internationally.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the now-homeless congregation with between 45 and 60 members “will not move forward alone.”
“This community does incredible things for one another when we need to,” Larson added.
Several faith leaders came to show support during Sunday’s news conference, including Mohamed Omar, executive director of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, who drove to Duluth on Sunday.
After his mosque was bombed in 2017 by members of a rural Illinois white nationalist militia, Omar said he felt an obligation to stand by the members of the Jewish faith.
Omar said he didn’t know what to feel after hearing that authorities found no evidence of a hate crime, noting that arson implies “some intentionality in it.”
“As a Muslim community, we know what it means … to be on the receiving end of a hate crime or arson or attack,” Omar said. “We have to strive and fight back the rhetoric” to allow people to feel safe in their places of worship, he said.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in a statement that he understands the Jewish community feels uneasy “in this current political and social environment where synagogues, mosques and predominantly black churches have been attacked in recent years.” He asked the public to withhold judgment and respect the investigative process.
Sher said it was unclear where the Adas Israel Congregation would hold services during the upcoming high holidays. Attendance typically swells during high holidays, when many members’ relatives come back to Duluth to attend orthodox services.
Tusken said police would accommodate requests for increased security, as they have during high holidays in the past.
Long term, “we’ll be in a variety of places until we find a permanent home,” Sher said, adding that may not happen until spring.
“All I can do is comfort people to say that true Judaism is in the heart, it’s not in the building,” he said. “Our legacy will go along with our hearts.”
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.