OPELOUSAS, La. (AP) — Authorities said he had no known criminal record. A friend described him as an introverted animal lover who showed no animosity toward any race, and a talented, if frustrated heavy metal guitar player and singer. A fellow musician called him “a really sweet guy.”
But Holden Matthews, the white, 21-year-old son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy, was behind bars Thursday, accused of torching three century old African American churches during a 10-day period in and around Opelousas. The city of 16,000 people was set on edge by blazes, which evoked memories of civil rights terrorism.
A fragment of a charred gasoline can, surveillance video that captured what appeared to be his parents’ truck in key locations, debit card records and cellphone tracking techniques led authorities to arrest Matthews without incident Wednesday evening. But though the arrest affidavit showed how they linked Matthews to the crime, federal, state and local authorities who gathered for a Thursday news conference at the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office were not ready to discuss motive.
Eric Rommal, the agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office, said investigators were still looking into whether the fires were “bias motivated.”
Matthews had a defender in Nygyl Bryyn, a Facebook friend who identified himself as a south Louisiana native, musician, entrepreneur and owner of the independent record label Power Back Productions. In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Brynn described Matthews as a talented, sometimes frustrated musician — upset in recent months after Brynn told him he needed to improve the quality of his recordings — but not a racist or violent person.
“If he’s making a statement it’s against religion and establishment only, not against race,” Bryyn said, adding: “I don’t think he did it, but if he did, it would not be because the churches are black.”
Bryyn, 36, a native of Opelousas, said he met Matthews after moving out of state when Matthews, who played guitar and sang, answered an online ad while seeking a recording deal with Bryyn’s Power Back Productions. They worked together and met face to face over the years. Matthews was at odds with his parents over his music aspirations, Bryyn said, but never showed signs of violence or racism.
Matthews had shown interest in “black metal,” an extreme subgenre of heavy metal, state Fire Marshall Butch 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, however, bristled at the notion that the black metal genre is characterized by racism. He acknowledged that some, but not all, involved in black metal music may have expressed racism, but he said it’s not typical of the genre.
“We’ve got friends of all races,” he said.
Josh Cook, 27, a musician from Hammond, Louisiana, said he heard about the church burnings before Matthews’ arrest and had wondered if they could have been inspired by the church fires in Norway. He said there is an “elitist” element of the black metal music scene that is fascinated with those church burnings.
But he echoed Bryyn’s description of Matthews, saying the suspect was friends with a very diverse group of people and a “good dude” who never displayed signs of racism.
“He is actually a really sweet guy, which is why I was so surprised to hear what happened,” Cook said. “He was not a jerk. He was very tolerant. He was very loving and very encouraging.”
Matthews’ father, Roy Matthews, “broke down” when told his son was the suspect, said Sheriff Bobby Guidroz.
Guidroz said the father aided authorities by arranging 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.
Governor 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.”
An Associated Press reporter was turned away Thursday from what was believed to be the home the suspect shared with his parents.
Matthews’ arrest came a little more than two weeks after 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.
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.”