The son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy was charged Wednesday with “intentionally” setting three fires that destroyed predominantly black churches, federal prosecutors announced.
Holden James Matthews, 21, was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts of intentional damage to religious property, hate crime charges under the Church Arson Prevention Act, and three counts of using fire to commit a felony after destroying the St. Landry Parish churches over ten days because of their “religious character.”
Matthews, who was previously charged on three counts of simple arson, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
“Attacks against an individual or group because of their religious beliefs will not be tolerated in the Western District of Louisiana,” U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said in a statement announcing the charges. “Churches are vital places of worship and fellowship for our citizens and bind us together as a community. Our freedom to safely congregate in these churches and exercise our religious beliefs must be jealously guarded.”
Prosecutors allege the fires were set on March 26, April 2, and April 4, destroying St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, respectively. Each house of worship was more than 100 years old.
While the churches were all churches were empty at the time, and no one was injured during the blazes, Louisiana State Fire Marshal “Butch” Browning, said at the time that the fires were “an attack on our God and our religion.”
“In my career, I have never seen such a spiritual mission that has come home so quickly,” Browning said. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed with Browning, calling Matthew’s alleged actions “cannot be justified or rationalized. It was an evil act.”
“Let’s pray for Mr. Matthews and his family,” Edwards added.
Matthews’ arrest warrant reportedly showed that authorities were able to connect him to the crimes through the “charred remains” of a gas canister found at the scene of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church fire. Authorities said the 21-year-old also allegedly used his ID and debit card to purchase that the gas, along with a lighter and a 10-pack of automotive shop towels.
Investigators also used surveillance video and a Walmart receipt to identify Matthews, who they arrested within 12 hours of the last fire out of fear “other crimes were imminent,” Browning said at the time.
A previously reported by The Daily Beast, Mattew’s Facebook page showed the 21-year-old’s affinity to pagan and black metal pages, and often commented about far-right former neo-Nazi metal musician Varg Vikernes, who served 15 years in prison for killing a fellow musician and burning churches in Norway.