Suspect in 3 Louisiana Black Church Fires Charged With Hate Crimes

The suspect who has been accused of burning down three Black churches in Louisiana was charged with federal hate crimes on Wednesday, federal prosecutors said. Holden Matthews, 21, of Opelousas, Louisiana was charged by a federal grand jury with three counts of intentional damage to religious property, three counts of using fire to commit a felony, and hate crime charges that fall under the Church Arson Prevention Act, according to a press release from the Justice Department.

Matthews is accused of intentionally setting fire to the three churches over a 10-day span. The 21-year-old set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana on March 26, the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4. David C. Joseph, the US Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, said in a statement that individuals or groups of people who attack others “because of their religious beliefs will not be tolerated” in the district.

“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,” he said.

“Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts.”

Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning previously told ABC News that Matthews had ties to “black metal and its association and history with church burnings in other parts of the world.” Matthews had previously commented on a Facebook post about a movie portrayal of Varg Vikernes, a musician who played black metal music and a member of a far-right group who was convicted of arson at three churches and manslaughter, the Associated Press previously reported.

During a news conference back in April, Sheriff Bobby Guidroz from the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department said that Matthews is the son of Deputy Roy Matthews, according to ABC News. Guidroz told reporters at the time that the suspect’s father “knew nothing about his son’s activity.”

If convicted, Matthews could face up to 50 years in prison for the charges against him, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine, according to the press release. The suspect had previously faced state charges in the church fires and violating Louisiana's hate crime law, but plead not guilty, NBC News reported.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a statement following the arrest of Matthews in April and called the arsons an act of “domestic terrorism.”“The arrest of Holden Matthews for the horrific burnings of Black churches in Louisiana is just another example of the hate-fueled times that we live in,” the statement from April read. “In African American communities in the South, church burnings are historically linked to expressions of racism and domestic terrorism. This is the same domestic terrorism that has been the hammer and chisel used to chip away at the humanity of Black Americans and the suppression of our political power.”

In an effort to help rebuild the churches, a GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help raise money for the three churches. The fundraiser was started by Ruth V. Jack, the Finance Secretary of the Seventh District Baptist Association, the fundraiser states. The campaign grew even more attention with the help of Yashar Ali, a contributor for HuffPost and New York Magazine.

The fundraiser raised over $2.1 million and the three churches will receive $715,000 to help rebuild from the damage caused by the fires. In a statement posted to the GoFundMe page, the President of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association Freddie Jack signed a thank you letter to those who donated to the campaign. “Having answered our call in a time of need speaks volumes of your love for your fellow man,” the letter read. “As bad as it was in the loss of our three historical churches where memories were formed and lives were built, it gives us greater joy to know that much fonder memories are now formed through that of your outpouring love, generous gifts and prayers.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.