Hate Crime Charges Lodged Against Church Arson Suspect

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

OPELOUSAS, La. (CN) – Charges against the white Louisianan accused of burning three black churches to the ground were upgraded by prosecutors during an arraignment and bail hearing Monday to include three counts of state-level hate crimes.

Holden Matthews, 21, now faces two counts of simple arson of a religious building, one count of aggravated arson of a religious building, and three hate crime counts which relate to a motive behind allegedly setting the Opelousas-area churches on fire.

Holden Matthews, 21, was arrested in connection with arson fires at three black churches in Louisiana. (Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP)

Matthews appeared at the hearing held at the St. Landry Parish District Courthouse through video conference Monday. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

State District Judge James Doherty denied Matthews bail, saying enough evidence was presented and charges were serious enough to consider Matthews a continued risk to the public.

“There is a substantial amount of evidence, it appears,” Doherty said.

Digital evidence places Matthews at the scene of all three fires he is accused of, investigators and St. Landry Parish prosecutors said. 

Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning testified during the hearing that Matthews had photos and videos from the churches as they burned. The images were taken at the scene of the fires and showed the blazes before and after emergency responders had arrived.

Photos also indicate Matthews returned to the scenes days later, when the churches had been reduced to ash, Browning said.

The fire marshal further stated Matthews’ cellphone contained copies of news stories about the fires that he’d altered.

“He superimposed himself on these news reports, claiming responsibility for these fires,” Browning said.

Among the cellphone evidence was also a 10-second video in which Matthews said gasoline was the best fuel for burning churches while discussing it with a friend. The video is time-stamped, investigators said, indicating it was created before the fires were set.  

The hate crime charges revolve around the “actual or perceived race, age, gender, religion, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry of the owner, or owners, or occupant or occupants of that property.”

The upgraded aggravated arson charge came from the “immediate danger” faced by two residents who were asleep inside a house 15 feet from the Greater Union Baptist Church that Holden allegedly set fire to April 2.

Browning said the home’s siding caught fire during the blaze and firefighters had to take “extraordinary measures” to keep the entire house from going up in flames.

He said it’s possible the FBI will bring federal hate crime charges against Matthews, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could bring federal arson charges.

“I’m being told it’s a big possibility at this time,” Browning said.

The fire marshal said he thinks Matthews poses a threat to public safety.

“These fires were done in a very deliberate and violent manner,” he said.

Browning said he believes Matthews, in the manner typical of pathological arsonists, would set more fires if let out on bail.

Pathological arsonists, he said, “continue to set fires and they become larger in nature, more tragic in nature, and can eventually become deadly.”

Browning added specifics to the physical evidence found, saying investigators found a black Bic lighter and a pack of red oil rags in Matthews’ truck that matched some rags agents said he bought from Walmart along with a gas can found at the burned churches. Investigators also were able to conclude that gas was used to start the fires.

Matthews’ interest in black metal music was also raised during Monday’s hearing. It’s a Scandinavian subgenre of metal music that typically takes on anti-Christian, satanic and pagan themes.

Norwegian bass player Varg Vikernes of the black metal band Mayhem is notorious for a string of church burnings in Norway in the 1990s, as well as the killing of one of his bandmates.

Browning said Matthews’ bedroom was covered in posters from a film released earlier this year, “Lords of Chaos,” which is a semi-fictionalized account of Vikernes’ criminal acts.

He said Matthews had a replica of the torch Vikernes used to start the church fires in Norway and said he brought up the film during questioning when he suggested that someone – someone other than himself – may have seen the film and got the idea from it to burn the churches.

Matthews’ court-appointed attorney, Quincy Cawthorne, questioned prosecutors’ requests to deny his client bail, saying Matthews doesn’t have the means to pose a risk of flight.

But prosecutor Charles Cravens, the chief administrative officer for the St. Landry Parish DA’s office, said the severity of the charges against Matthews make him a risk, which will only worsen if federal charges are added.

Matthews’ parents, Roy and Angela Matthews, sat in the front row during the hearing. During one recess both could be seen crying as they stepped into a room off the main chamber, according to an account from the Acadiana Advocate newspaper.

St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre burned to the ground on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas two days later.

The fires brought back memories of terror during the civil rights movement. Opelousas, with a population of 16,000, is located 130 miles northeast of New Orleans in the heart of south and central Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole country.

Trial has been set for September, with jury selection slated to begin Sept. 10 after a pretrial conference in July.

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