The white man who burned down three historically black churches over a recent 10-day period in Louisiana was motivated by racism, state prosecutors said Monday.
Holden Matthews, 21, who is the son of a sheriff’s deputy in St. Landry Parish, is now facing hate crime charges on top of the arson charges slapped on him at his arrest last Thursday.
Matthews pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Upon Matthews’ arrest, Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning said that law enforcement moved quickly after identifying him as a suspect. “We saw an imminent threat to public safety,” Browning said. “We saw other crimes were imminent.”
State district judge James Doherty agreed with that assessment and denied Matthews bail, the Associated Press reported.
The first fire was set on March 26 at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. The second happened a week later, on April 2, at Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, and the third on April 4 at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church also in Opelousas. All three have predominantly black congregations. The fires were started with gasoline, and no one was inside the buildings at the time they were set.
Police said that they used old-fashioned detective work to catch Matthews, including physical evidence found at the crime scenes plus technological evidence like cellphone tower records placing him in the vicinity of the churches on the days they were burned.
Last week, Browning said that investigators were probing Matthews’ involvement in the black metal scene, which, since its origins in the 1990s, has evolved into a diverse and nuanced sub-genre. However, there’s also a far-right neo-Nazi scene within black metal, which is often associated with a string of church burnings in Norway in the early nineties.
Last week, the NAACP deemed the fires in Louisiana, plus another fire at a civil rights center in Tennessee, to be “domestic terrorism.” "The spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country,” NAACP CEO and president Derrick Johnson said in a statement.
Louisiana’s hate crime statute carries a maximum five-year sentence, which must be served in addition to the sentence for the underlying offense (if the offense is a felony). In this case, Matthews was already facing three counts of simple arson charges, each carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Matthews’ case is slated to go to trial in September.
Cover: Rev. Gerald Toussaint speaks at a press conference on the arrest of a suspect Holden Matthews for the arson of three churches in Opelousas, La., Thursday, April 11, 2019. AP Photo/Lee Celano