Homeless Man Couldn't Douse Accidental Synagogue Fire by Spitting on It

An estimated loss of $367,000 in religious antiques and building structure

A homeless man who admitted to starting a fire that destroyed a 117-year-old synagogue in Minnesota, then walking away from the growing blaze because he couldn't douse it by spitting on it, is expected to get probation after pleading guilty.

Matthew Amiot, 36, entered his guilty pleas on negligent fire charges Tuesday in St. Louis County District Court.

The fire destroyed the Adas Israel Synagogue on September, 9 in Duluth. Authorities say Amiot used a lighter to ignite a pile of combustible materials outside the main building, near a separate religious structure called a sukkah.

The complaint says Amiot admitted starting the fire and told police he tried to spit on it to put it out, but walked away when that didn't work. Police say they don't believe the fire, which came just weeks ahead of the Jewish high holy days, was a hate crime.

Sentencing is scheduled for October, 25. The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported that prosecutors are recommending probation. As a condition of his release from jail, he was ordered to remain at a homeless shelter until his next hearing.

 Matthew James Amiot

Prosecutors said they plan to ask for a stayed sentence, meaning Amiot would be spared additional jail time if he stays out of trouble. The maximum potential penalty is three years in prison.

"No fires, no trouble, no nothing," Judge Shaun Floerke told Amiot.

Tuesday's hearing was moved up from its original date in October so that Amiot could make a long-scheduled housing meeting Wednesday, the newspaper reported. He said he had been waiting three years for a chance at housing assistance.

According to its website, the Adas Israel Congregation is an Orthodox/High Conservative Jewish congregation with 75 members, though many family members of the congregation would return for holiday services. Construction was completed in 1902.

The lost religious antiquities were worth at least $250,000, while the structure was valued at $117,000. Only eight of 14 Torah scrolls, the holy books of Judaism, that were inside could be saved.

One firefighter suffered a concussion fighting the blaze.