DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — A fire that destroyed a historic synagogue in northeastern Minnesota doesn’t appear to have been a hate crime, authorities said Sunday in discussing the arrest of a suspect.
Matthew James Amiot, 36, of Duluth, was arrested Friday in the fire last week at the Adas Israel Congregation in downtown Duluth, the city’s police chief, Mike Tusken, said at a news conference.
Tusken said he has no reason to believe the fire was a hate crime, although the investigation is ongoing. Police are recommending that prosecutors charge Amiot, who has no permanent address, with first-degree arson. A criminal complaint is expected to be filed mid-week, he said.
The blaze started in a shed outside the synagogue and spread into the building early Monday, fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said. No accelerants were found.
Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were called in to assist in the investigation, which is standard when fires break out in places of worship.
One firefighter who was struck by falling debris was taken to a hospital, treated and released. That firefighter is still recovering from a concussion and doing well, Krizaj said.
Mayor Emily Larson said the city continues to offer “our heartfelt condolences” to the Adas Israel congregation and the entire Jewish community.
“This has been a very, very difficult week for this community,” Larson told reporters.
Phillip Sher, past president of the synagogue, would not speculate on a motive. “We’re not out for vengeance. All I can find out of this event is sadness for everyone,” he said.
Sher said it was “extremely sad” for the congregation not to have a home for the Sabbath on Saturday. The charred ruins were released to the congregation on Thursday, and the congregation is exploring how to remove the building, he said.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in a statement Sunday that while authorities don’t think the fire was a hate crime, “the destruction of Adas Israel Congregation remains a tragedy for generations of Jewish Duluthians.” He added that the group has heard from families with decades of history within the congregation.
“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. 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.
Police previously have had “multiple contacts” with Amiot, but nothing that rose to the level of arson, the police chief said. Authorities are unaware if Amiot has had previous contact with the synagogue. He remains in jail, and the police chief said Amiot probably does not have a defense attorney yet.
According to its website, the Adas Israel Congregation is an Orthodox/High Conservative Jewish congregation with 75 members. Construction of the synagogue was completed in 1902.
Eight of 14 Torah scrolls, the holy books of Judaism, that were in the synagogue were saved.
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