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Son of sheriff’s deputy charged in arson attacks on 3 black churches in Louisiana

"We saw other crimes were imminent," said Butch Browning, the Louisiana Fire Marshal.

by Tess Owen
Apr 11 2019, 3:03pm

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 12:07 p.m. ET.

Police in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, have arrested the son of a sheriff’s deputy in connection with a string of alleged arson attacks on three historically black churches, which recently burned down over a recent 10-day period.

Police arrested 21-year-old Holden Matthews, a white man, and charged him with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, Louisiana officials confirmed in a press conference on Thursday. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

“When Matthews was developed as a suspect, we saw an immediate threat to public safety,” said Butch Browning, the Louisiana Fire Marshal. “We saw other crimes were imminent. And in an abundance of safety, we quickly secured warrants and took him into custody.”

Initial media reports suggesting that a deputy turned in his son were also incorrect, according to St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz. He said that he called Matthews’ father to his office on Thursday to inform him that they were going to arrest his son.

“He was shocked and hurt, as any father would be,” Guidroz said. “My heart went out to him. I talked to him. He was in terrible shape.”

The first fire was on March 26, at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. The second blaze 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.

Nobody was hurt or injured in the blazes.

The FBI said that it’s working to determine whether the incidents were bias-motivated and warrant federal hate crime charges.

“We can now confirm all three of these fires were intentionally set, and all three of these fires are related,” Browning said.

Browning also said investigators are still trying to determine Matthews’ alleged motive. “The investigation is extremely active,” he said. “We’re vetting several motives.”

As one example, Browning said that investigators were looking into Matthew’s involvement in “a type of music called black metal, and its associations with church burnings that has been documented in books and movies.”

Matthews was taken into custody around 5.30 p.m. on Wednesday after a joint investigation with Louisiana’s Fire Marshal’s office and the FBI.

“A suspect has been identified in connection with the three church burnings in Opelousas, Louisiana, and is in state custody,” U.S. Attorney David Joseph said in a statement. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF, and FBI are working with state and local law enforcement and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the victims and those St. Landry Parish residents affected by these despicable acts.”

In a statement earlier this week, the NAACP called the fires at the churches in Louisiana, as well as another fire at a civil rights center in Tennessee, “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. “But this is nothing new."

“This is the reflection of one depraved individual and not a reflection of the state of Louisiana,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Thursday. “It’s going to take a lot of time to recover physically and emotionally from the damage that has been done.”

Edwards then quoted Psalm 62: “God is our fortress and we will never be shaken.”

Cover image: The burnt ruins of the Greater Union Baptist Church, one of three that recently burned down in St. Landry Parish, are seen in Opelousas, La., Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)