Accused Church Arsonist in Louisiana Pleads Guilty

Firefighters tackle a blaze at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, in Opelousas, La., on April 4. (Leslie Westbrook/The Advocate via AP)

LAFAYETTE, La. (CN) – Holden Matthews, the white son of a sheriff’s deputy who is accused of setting fires to three predominantly black churches last year, pleaded guilty Monday in state and federal court.

Matthews, who originally pleaded not guilty last year, has now pleaded guilty to one federal charge of using fire to commit a felony and three federal charges of intentional damage to religious property, which are considered hate crimes under the Church Arson Prevention Act.

In exchange for his guilty plea, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the two remaining charges against him.

At the state level, Matthews also pleaded guilty to six charges: three hate crime charges, two simple arson charges and one charge of aggravated arson.

Matthews’s federal sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 22. His state sentencing hearing is set for May 26. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Luke Walker told The Acadiana Advocate newspaper that prosecutors intend for his federal sentence to run concurrent with any state sentence.   

In his federal plea agreement, Matthews said he burned the churches “to raise his profile as a black metal musician” and to liken himself to bass player Varg Vikernes, of the band Mayhem, and other Norwegian black metal artists who were accused of setting fires in churches in the 1990s.

In hearings last June, federal prosecutor Risa Berkower presented messages Matthews sent to friends bragging about the fires and asking for feedback on album covers he made using photos he took of them. In one message, Matthews wrote that he was seeking revenge on the Christian religion for what he called centuries of oppression. He said he wanted it to be known the fires were intentional.

“I want them to be scared,” Matthews wrote.

Matthews will be required to register with the state as an arsonist when he is eventually released from prison.

Over the course of ten days, Matthews set fires that destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, both in Opelousas, Louisiana.

Matthews, then 22, was arrested after video surveillance and physical evidence linked him to the crimes.

He was present during both hearings Monday, clad in shackles and an orange Lafayette Parish Correctional Center jumpsuit. His parents, Roy and Angela Matthews, attended the hearings as well but did not comment on their son’s situation.

Matthews’ federal defense attorney, Dustin Talbot, described Matthews as a “copycat” and said in a statement to the Advocate that Matthews has “the social and mental development of an adolescent” and that he committed these acts in “a naïve attempt to use images of the fires to gain acceptance into an online music community.”

“Holden now fully understands the seriousness and gravity of his actions and is deeply remorseful for what he has done and the pain he has caused the congregations of these churches,” Talbot’s statement continued.

Matthews is facing a minimum ten years in prison.

“This is the result of a lot of hurting, a community that’s been trying to heal, and it’s been an extraordinary show of faith. But this ended with justice,” Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said outside the St. Landry Parish Courthouse Monday, according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

“What we want to tell this community is every bit of resources and every agency across America came together. This was the number one thing to solve when this happened and to provide assurance that it wasn’t going to happen again,” Browning said.

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