The suspect in a string of fires that destroyed three black churches in rural Louisiana is the white son of a sheriff’s deputy whose father helped arrange for his arrest, authorities said Thursday.
Holden Matthews, 21, was jailed without bail on arson charges in connection with the blazes in and around Opelousas, a city of 16,000 where the flame-gutted remains of the buildings evoked memories of civil rights era violence.
Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning offered no motive for the fires. He and other officials stopped short of calling them hate crimes. Eric Rommal, the agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office, said investigators were still looking into whether the fires were “bias-motivated.”
Browning said there were no indications that anyone else was involved and the danger to churches was over.
“This community is safe again,” he told a news conference. “We are extremely, unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes.”
The Rev. Harry Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, which was destroyed, said the arrest put him at ease and let him sleep at night.
“I felt relieved my congregation didn’t have to worry anymore,” said Richard, who was told of the arrest late Wednesday. “I was reassured that law enforcement was on our side, that things were finally coming to an end.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards said the fires were “especially painful” because they were a reminder “of a very dark past of intimidation and fear.”
“This is a reflection of one depraved individual,” he added. “It is not a reflection on the state of Louisiana.”
Investigators used surveillance video, cellphone tracking, and a Walmart receipt to help identify Matthews, who was arrested late Wednesday. They moved quickly, arresting him within 12 hours because they were worried that “other crimes were imminent,” Browning said.
The charred remains of a red gas can recovered at one of the churches was sold at Walmart locations, and the company’s investigators found that the same type of gas can was bought March 25 at a store in Opelousas, along with automotive cloths and a lighter.
The debit card used in that purchase belonged to Matthews, according to court documents.
“The purchase time on this receipt is less than three hours before the first church fire was reported,” an affidavit said.
In addition, cellphone tower data showed Matthews was in the area of all three fires. Surveillance video from businesses and homes near the churches, and on the roads to and from each fire scene, repeatedly showed a vehicle that was consistent with the beige pickup that belonged to Matthews’ father. Matthews apparently drove the truck to buy the gas can and other items, according to the court documents.
St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that the suspect was the son of deputy Roy Matthews, whom he described as an excellent employee who knew nothing of his son’s actions.
The elder Matthews was heartbroken when told his son was a suspect, the sheriff said.
“He broke down,” Guidroz said. “It was hard.” He said the father arranged for the son to leave the house and go to a place where he could be arrested without incident. He did not elaborate.
The younger Matthews was arrested on three counts of arson of a religious building. A conviction could bring up to 15 years in prison on each count, Browning said.
The fires set many people on edge in and around Opelousas, about 140 miles northwest of New Orleans.
An Associated Press reporter was turned away from what was believed to be the home the suspect shared with his parents.
Matthews had a defender in Nygyl Bryyn, a Facebook friend who identified himself as a south Louisiana native, musician, entrepreneur, and agent. In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Bryyn described Matthews as a talented, sometimes frustrated musician but not a racist or violent person.
“As far as being a white supremacist? No. Absolutely not,” Bryyn said. “If he’s making a statement it’s against religion and establishment only, not against race,” Bryyn said, later adding, “I don’t think he did it but if he did it would not be because the churches are black.”
Bryyn said he met Matthews after moving out of state when Matthews, who played guitar and sang, answered an online ad while seeking a record deal. They worked together and met face to face over the years.
Matthews had long been upset with his parents for not supporting his musical efforts, Bryyn said. He also said Matthews had been discouraged in recent months as Bryyn urged him to improve the quality of his recordings. But Bryyn said he never sensed anger that would lead to arson.
Matthews had shown interest in “black metal,” an extreme subgenre of heavy metal, Browning said. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.
A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Matthews showed him with the words “black metal” spray painted on a wall behind him. He also posted a comment on a movie’s portrayal of black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a far-right figure convicted of manslaughter and arson at three churches.
Black metal lyrics often espouse satanism and paganism, and a few bands feature neo-Nazi beliefs.
Bryyn acknowledged that some people involved in black metal music have expressed racist ideas, but he insisted it’s not typical of the genre.
“We’ve got friends of all races,” he said. “This is a very large community. Despite the awful image, this is the most loving community you could imagine.”
The fires happened over a 10-day period. The first blaze torched the St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26 in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time, and no one was injured.