JTA — A homeless US man charged with setting fire to a historic synagogue in northern Minnesota has told police he tried to spit on the blaze to put it out but walked away when he was unsuccessful.
Police said Matthew James Amiot, 36, admitted to starting the fire at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Duluth, the Star-Tribune reported Monday. He was sheltering in an alcove between the building and its sukkah.
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said at a news conference Sunday that there is no evidence that the arson was a bias or hate crime, but added that “this may change as this investigation progresses.”
He 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 the synagogue. Two minutes later he is seen on surveillance video walking away from the building.
Amiot, who was arrested Friday and jailed on suspicion of first-degree arson, was officially charged during a hearing at 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.
Amiot’s bail was set at $20,000.
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.
Amiot faces a maximum of three years in prison for the felony charge and a year in jail for the misdemeanor charge.