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Amiot sentenced to one year and a day in jail for starting synagogue fire in Duluth

Matthew Amiot

DULUTH -- The man who started a fire that destroyed Duluth's Adas Israel Congregation synagogue was sentenced Friday, Nov. 15, to a year and a day in prison.

Matthew James Amiot, 36, requested and received an executed prison sentence after admitting to a violation of his probation.

The hearing was continued from last week, when Amiot appeared erratic and public defender Cynthia Evenson opined that he wasn't "in any state to proceed."

Appearing Friday before 6th Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke, Amiot said he was doing "good." His attorney added that he's "obviously in much better shape than the last appearance."

Amiot was arrested last week, having been accused of violating the terms of his court-ordered probation by absconding from a treatment program. Instead of continuing on probation, Amiot's defender said the two of them agreed it would be easier for him to serve prison time.

Amiot has credit for 56 days in jail, which will be carried out at a state prison. He will be under supervised release after serving at least two-thirds of the new sentence behind bars.

Amiot pleaded guilty in September to two counts of starting a negligent fire in the Sept. 9 blaze that destroyed the 118-year-old synagogue in downtown Duluth. He admitted that he started a fire in the sukkah behind the building and that it grew out of his control, ravaging the building and injuring a firefighter.

Attorneys and family members have indicated that Amiot has a history of homelessness, drug use and mental health problems. He said he started the fire to try to stay warm on a cool evening; authorities said there was no evidence of it being a hate crime.

Floerke initially stayed a prison sentence in favor of probation, as prescribed by state sentencing guidelines. The judge sentenced him Oct. 25 to four years of probation, chemical dependency treatment, up to 90 days in jail, 192 hours of community service and $66,000 in restitution.

However, a probation officer reported that Amiot fled from Bethel Port Rehabilitation Center in Duluth where he had just completed his intake after being released from the St. Louis County Jail on Nov. 6. That sent him back before Floerke for the violation hearing.

Members of the Jewish community responded compassionately to Amiot's prison sentence, which appears to bring a close to the legal chapter in the synagogue's destruction.

"The poor guy," said Jack Seiler of Amiot. "He's homeless. He's cold. He needed to get warm. He probably had no idea what the building was. ... Maybe he's crying for help."

Sarah Rose, a New York City author whose great-great-grandfather was a founder of Adas Israel, said she's saddened that Amiot has to go into the corrections system, which she considers inhumane.

"I understand he was homeless," Rose said. "I have a great deal of sympathy for him. ... Everything about this breaks my heart."

Nonetheless, Rose said, she can't understand why prosecutors didn't treat the synagogue's destruction as a bias crime. Regardless of intent, she said, all crimes against houses of worship are considered bias crimes because they harm an entire community.

The image of a synagogue on fire on the morning of Sept. 9 "rocked" American Jews, she said, evoking mind-pictures of the Kristallnacht pogrom that was carried out against Jews in Nazi Germany in November 1938. The Adas Israel fire was "a cultural religious nightmare made real," Rose said.

The St. Louis County Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the bias crime question.

But Rabbi Mendy Ross, who leads the Hasidic Jewish movement Chabad in Duluth, said, "The criminal justice system has to do what the criminal justice system has to do."

"The police told us it wasn't malicious," Ross said. "Obviously, we believe the police."

In a statement, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas said the sentencing brought "some level of closure to this tragedy."

"Still, the loss of a historic synagogue building, six Torah scrolls and other holy artifacts is immensely painful for the congregants of Adas Israel and Jews across our region," Steve Hunegs said in the statement. "We reiterate our thanks to the Duluth Police Department, Duluth Fire Department, and ATF for their diligence and professionalism throughout the investigation.”