Gavel (illustration)
Gavel (illustration)iStock

The homeless man charged with setting fire to a historic synagogue in northern Minnesota was sheltering in an alcove between the building and its sukkah.

Matthew James Amiot, 36, used a lighter to set fire to what the criminal complaint said was “a variety of combustible materials” early on the morning of September 9 outside of the Adas Israel Synagogue in Duluth, Minnesota. Two minutes later he is seen on surveillance video walking away from the building.

Police say Amiot admitted to starting the fire and said he then tried to spit on it to put it out, but walked away when he was unsuccessful, the Star-Tribune reported citing the complaint.

Amiot, who was arrested Friday and jailed on suspicion of first-degree arson, was officially charged during a hearing St. Louis County District Court on Monday with one felony count of negligent fires and a gross misdemeanor count of negligent fires resulting in a human being injured.

A firefighter identified as Ben Gasner was hit by falling debris and knocked unconscious during efforts to put out the blaze.

He faces a maximum of three years in prison for the felony charge and a year in jail for the misdemeanor charge.

Judge Eric Hylden set bail at $20,000.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said during a news conference on Sunday that Amiot has previous convictions for misdemeanor shoplifting and trespassing. Tusken also said that there is no evidence that the arson was a bias or hate crime, but added that “This may change as this investigation progresses.”

The nearly 120-year-old synagogue was deemed a total loss, with damage to property estimated to be at least $117,000 for the structure and at least $250,000 for religious items, according to the newspaper.