A homeless man pleaded guilty Tuesday to starting the fire that destroyed a 118-year-old synagogue in downtown Duluth earlier this month.
Matthew James Amiot, 36, admitted at a hastily scheduled plea hearing that he was attempting to stay warm when he lit a small fire that quickly spiraled out of control and spread to the historic home of the Adas Israel Congregation on the morning of Sept. 9.
"I lit a little fire and woke up and it was a lot bigger," Amiot testified at the hearing in State District Court, adding that he was unsuccessful in attempting to put out the blaze, which later resulted in a firefighter being hospitalized.
Amiot, who is facing a probationary sentence, is expected to be released from custody with supervision on Wednesday. Sixth Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke scheduled sentencing for Oct. 25.
Amiot's admission came just 15 days after the fire and eight days after he was charged. He formally pleaded guilty to a felony count of starting a negligent fire resulting in more than $2,500 in damage and a gross misdemeanor count of starting a negligent fire resulting in great bodily harm.
Fire quickly ravaged building
Facing questioning from Assistant St. Louis County Vicky Wanta, the defendant told the court he was hanging out around the Tri-Towers Apartments and "needed a place to stay" shortly after 2 a.m. He said he went across the street to the synagogue, 302 E. Third St., where found some warmth in the sukkah — a temporary structure erected behind the synagogue for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
Amiot told the court he lit some clothing on fire, but the flames quickly grew in excess of a foot tall. He said he tried to spit on it but couldn't put it out.
Amiot added that he didn't have a phone, so he started walking toward the Speedway station on Sixth Avenue East to summon help.
"By the time I got there, I saw fire and sirens going toward (the synagogue), so there was no reason for me to call," he testified.
A criminal complaint states that Amiot was seen walking behind the synagogue at 2:13 a.m. Two minutes later, the document states, he was seen "looking back at the flickering flames." Fire crews arrived at the scene at 2:22 a.m. and reported 3-foot-tall flames coming from the area.
By 3:39 a.m., the building began to collapse. Duluth Fire Department Capt. Ben Gasner was knocked unconscious by falling debris, while there was a "near miss" for a number of other firefighters, according to the complaint. Gasner, a 19-year veteran, suffered a concussion.
The synagogue was deemed a total loss. The structure was valued at $117,000, according to county property records, while the loss of religious artifacts was estimated to be in excess of $250,000.
Accelerants were not detected at the scene and authorities have said there is "no reason to believe that this is a bias or hate crime." Amiot was arrested four days later and provided a confession to authorities.
"You agree it was negligent to leave that fire burning next to the building?" Wanta asked in court Tuesday.
"Yes, it was," Amiot acknowledged.
Amiot to be released, seek housing
Amiot was arraigned on the charges last week and wasn't even scheduled to make his second court appearance until Oct. 8. But defense attorney Keith Shaw contacted the court on Monday to request an immediate hearing.
Amiot entered the pleas without the benefit of any agreement with prosecutors. A defendant in a felony case is allowed to enter a guilty plea at any hearing after his or her first appearance.
"We don't have to do this today," Floerke cautioned the defendant. "We can wait and give you some more time to think about it."
Amiot, however, indicated he wanted to immediately resolve the case. He told the court he understood he was waiving his right to a jury and forgoing any motions challenging the gathering of evidence in the case.
The felony charge carries a maximum of three years in prison, while the gross misdemeanor carries one year, but Wanta and Shaw told the judge that Amiot will face a presumptive probationary sentence under state guidelines.
Shaw requested that Amiot immediately be released from custody. The defendant said he has been on a waiting list for housing assistance for three years and has a long-scheduled meeting set for Wednesday afternoon, expressing concern that he would be pushed to the bottom of the list if he misses that appointment.
Amiot in recent years has racked up 16 citations with nine convictions for minor offenses, mostly theft and trespassing — crimes that both Shaw and Wanta said are indicative of his homelessness. But the prosecutor requested that he be held in custody pending sentencing, arguing that his "pattern of behavior" has escalated and a presentence investigation should determine his needs before he is released back into the public.
But Floerke agreed to the defense's request for supervised release, saying "it doesn't make sense to keep you in jail." He ordered Amiot to meet Wednesday with probation officers and Deb Holman, the street outreach worker at CHUM, where he will be required to stay every night as he awaits sentencing.
The judge told Amiot not to "screw this up."
"No fires," Floerke said. "No trouble. No nothing."