Man sentenced for synagogue fire nods in agreement
"Some of us feel scarred and others lost," said a religious leader in letter to court as Matthew James Amiot, 36, was sentenced to four years probation.
The man responsible for the fire that destroyed a 118-year-old Jewish synagogue in Duluth and injured a firefighter didn't speak during his sentencing Friday in District Court.
Instead, Matthew Amiot, 36, declined to talk and nodded as Judge Shaun Floerke handed out an involved sentence, which included four years probation, up to 90 days in jail, chemical dependency treatment, 192 hours of community service and $66,000 in restitution that most in the court agreed would be difficult for the homeless Amiot to ever repay.
The judge said there was symbolism to the fine — that it was the dollar amount in fire damages left uncovered by the synagogue's insurance.
“It’ll be the most intense monitoring experience of your life,” Floerke said to Amiot of probation in lieu of prison time.
Shackled, slumping in his seat and wearing orange, Amiot was sentenced after having pleaded guilty previously to two counts: a felony for starting a negligent fire resulting in more than $2,500 in damage, and a gross misdemeanor for starting a negligent fire resulting in great bodily harm.
The Jewish community that lost its synagogue gave insight into its recovery during a victim impact statement. A few members of the congregation were in attendance, deferring to the contents of a letter. Members of the synagogue have kept most of their thoughts private since the Sept. 9 fire that burned Adas Israel Congregation synagogue at 302 E. Third St.
In a stern letter read aloud in court, the synagogue's lay leader Phil Sher wrote, “Some of us feel scarred and others lost.”
Sher called Amiot "a danger to society" and argued for either jail time or time in a secure mental health facility.
As investigators searched for clues prior to identifying Amiot, the synagogue fire became an international topic, with attention paid to the possibility of it being a hate crime.
Such a motive was ruled out as Amiot’s history of homelessness, drug use and mental health issues came to light. Ultimately, Amiot confessed to walking away from a warming fire he’d lost control of the night of the fire.
Amiot will be subjected to diagnostic evaluations which will screen him into either Mental Health or Drug Court for his ongoing supervision. Floerke called the responsibilities associated with each diversionary court harder than prison, and said Amiot needed to follow every rule every step of the way.
“Ultimately, I’m the guy who decides if you stay out or go (to prison),” said Floerke, who said he’d been victim of a fire that destroyed his home and whose son is studying to be a firefighter.
William Holz, a neighbor, also testified to the court, saying he’d been deeply impacted by the loss of the synagogue.
“The members of the synagogue were very good friends of mine,” Holz said. “They were all my neighbors and I don’t get to see them anymore.”
Attorneys on both sides agreed that Amiot’s mental health symptoms failed to render him incompetent.
In Sher’s statement, read aloud by prosecuting attorney Victoria Wanta, he showed compassion for Amiot’s mental health issues, but remained insistent about not overlooking the trauma and impact on others Amiot has had through his actions, including a criminal history of theft, trespassing, shoplifting and burglary.
Sher said Adas Israel Congregation had been founded by immigrants and was “a house of worship for literally thousands of people throughout its experience.”
Damages to the synagogue were in excess of $1 million, Sher said, considering the loss of artifacts as much as 500 years old. Additionally, handmade religious heirlooms were lost.
Sher said the firefighter injured while battling the fire could have been killed had it not been for a timely on-scene response.
Amiot had previously violated terms of a supervised release within hours of being discharged from the St. Louis County Jail in September. Floerke revealed that Amiot had lied about having a housing appointment and went missing after that, requiring a warrant to be placed for his arrest.
In her own words, Wanta argued for jail as “a solid, swift, certain and tangible consequence,” and said that four hours of community service per month for the length of his probation would be Amiot’s best hope to repair the damages for which he was responsible.
The judge agreed.
“I find that what people look for when someone has harmed them is some steady, thoughtful progress,” Floerke said.
Amiot was credited with 36 days already spent in jail, and was returned to jail following the sentencing. He will remain there for up to 90 days or until a bed in a supervised chemical dependency treatment facility opens.
It was unlikely, even with some financial losses recouped, that the congregation would return to the same location, Sher’s letter said.
“Things just aren’t the same there,” Sher wrote.
As congregation members and members of the court searched aloud for why the fire happened at all, Amiot's defense attorney Keith Shaw said, "I can't offer anything from my client that makes sense of it."