DULUTH — The homeless man charged with setting ablaze a historic Duluth synagogue earlier this month pleaded guilty to two charges Tuesday.
Matthew J. Amiot was charged with a felony and a gross misdemeanor for causing negligent fires to the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue, which was destroyed early in the morning Sept. 9.
He will be released from jail Wednesday, and prosecutors are recommending he be placed on probation, likely sparing him more jail time.
Amiot, 36, started clothes on fire outside the synagogue to keep warm, and when the flames grew out of control he tried to spit on it to put it out, prosecutors said at a plea hearing Tuesday. When the fire would not go out he walked away.
A firefighter was injured by debris while battling the blaze.
Investigators said they did not believe the incident was a hate crime or fueled by prejudice, and public defender Natasha VanLieshout last week said Amiot was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Tuesday’s hearing was moved up from its original date in October so that Amiot could make a long-scheduled housing meeting Wednesday. He said he had been waiting three years for a chance at housing assistance.
As a condition of his release he is to remain at CHUM, the downtown Duluth homeless shelter, until his next hearing Oct. 25.
On that date prosecutors will ask for a stayed sentence, meaning Amiot will be spared jail time if he follows the conditions of his release. He faces a maximum of three years in prison on the felony charge and a year in jail on the gross misdemeanor.
“No fires, no trouble, no nothing,” Sixth Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke told Amiot.
Not far from the courthouse, the nearly 120-year-old synagogue sat quietly in ruins on Tuesday afternoon. Damage to the property, at 302 E. Third St., is estimated to be at least $117,000 for the structure and at least $250,000 for religious items.
The fire captured national attention amid a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, and it came just weeks ahead of the start of the High Holy Days.
The modern orthodox Adas Israel Congregation now numbers around 40 local members, but many in the extended family of the congregation return for holiday services.
The long-term plans for the congregation remain unclear.