Federal hate crime charges have been filed against a man accused of setting fire to three historic African-American churches in Louisiana, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
A grand jury indicted Holden Matthews, 21, on three counts of using fire to commit a felony, along with three counts of intentional damage of religious property — an offense classified as a hate crime under the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act.
Matthews, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, was already facing state arson and hate crime charges after authorities say he used gasoline to burn three churches — Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, and St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre — over a 10-day span in March and early April.
Matthews has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
Wednesday’s indictment alleges the fires were racially motivated, and that Matthews targeted the churches because their congregations are majority African-American. If convicted on the federal hate crime charge, Matthews faces up to 20 years in prison on each count, in addition to the mandatory minimum of 10 years for the felony charge.
According to investigators, the 21-year-old also faces three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine for each of the counts.
“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. “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.”
“Today, we’re one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts,” he concluded.
Testifying in April, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. Butch Browning said authorities had “unequivocal” evidence against Matthews. Browning pointed to cellphone records placing the suspect at the scene of the fires, and described photos on the phone showing all three churches burning before police had arrived.
The fire marshal testified that authorities were initially eyeing Matthews for his interest in “Black Metal,” a sub-genre of heavy metal that has been linked to the burnings of Norwegian churches in the 1990s. He added that Matthews had shown interest in the film “Lords of Chaos,” a semi-fictional 2018 biopic about black metal performer Varg Vikernes, the Norwegian black metal scene and acts of violence associated with the genre.
A GoFundMe page for the three Black churches has collected more than $2 million in donations to be used toward rebuilding efforts.