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A man accused of setting fire to three historically black churches in Louisiana has been charged with hate crimes.  Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff, was originally charged with two counts of simple arson of a religious building and one count of aggravated arson of a religious building after being arrested last week.

Authorities arrested Matthews, the son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy, last week on suspicion he set fires to three churches over the span of about 10 days.  The first blaze occurred at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26.  On April 2, the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas was set ablaze and then the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4.  All three churches were in St. Landry Parish, about 30 minutes north of Lafayette.

An arrest warrant reportedly showed that officials connected Matthews to the crimes through the charred remains of a brand of gas can found at the scene of the April 4 fire.  Investigators learned that a Walmart in Opelousas was a local seller of the Scepter-branded can found at the scene.  Walmart informed investigators that two Scepter cans were purchased late on March 25 — less than three hours before the first fire — along with a 10-pack of automotive cloths and a lighter, according to the affidavit. The receipt showed the purchase was made with a debit card in the name of Holden Matthews.

Investigators also obtained surveillance photos of the purchaser and the pickup he was driving. The affidavit said a Ford pickup like the one Matthews was driving was registered to the suspect’s father, Roy.  The same color and model pickup that Matthews drives was also seen at two of the churches shortly before the fires were reported to 911, according to video footage referenced in the arrest warrant.

The affidavit said the pickup was also later captured driving by the scene of the fire and slowing down. A firefighter also reported seeing the pickup near the burning church.  During his Monday hearing, prosecutors said cellphone evidence placed Matthews at the scenes of the three fires, including photos and videos.   District Judge James Doherty said “There is a substantial amount of evidence, it appears,” before denying Matthews bond and setting a trial date for September.

Matthew’s father, Roy Matthews was unaware of his son’s alleged involvement and was not personally part of the investigation, Sheriff Bobby Guidroz told reporters.  Governor John Bel Edwards told reporters “I don’t know what this young man’s motive was, I don’t know what was in his heart, but I can say it cannot be justified or rationalized.  These were evil acts. But let me be clear about this, hate is not a Louisiana value.”  Church burnings were a common occurrence in the Jim Crow era and church fires in the South — immediately bring to mind such racist attacks.

The FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigations. The NAACP has labeled the fires “domestic terrorism,” adding that the “spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”

 

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