Suspect in Louisiana Black Church Fires to Appear in Court

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

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A white Louisiana man accused of burning three century-old historic black churches to the ground had his first day in court Monday for a hearing on a petition from state prosecutors to deny bail.

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

The motion from St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor was before St. Landry Parish District Judge James Doherty.

The suspect, Holden Matthews, is also scheduled to appear before Doherty on May 2 for another bond hearing.

Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy, was arrested late in the evening last Wednesday and charged with arson that destroyed three predominantly black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish in a 10-day-span in and around Opelousas.

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.

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.

Matthews was arrested on three counts of arson on a religious building after investigators found surveillance images of what appeared to be his parents’ truck parked near the scenes of the fires. Federal investigators also found a crucial piece of evidence, remnants of a red Scepter-branded gas can among the char and ash at one of the burned churches. Each count carries a maximum 15-year penalty.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators were able to link the purchase of the gas can to a debit card in Matthews’ name that was used to purchase the can along with a lighter and shop towels from an Opelousas Walmart just hours before the first church fire, according to the arrest affidavit.

Federal, state and local authorities were reluctant to discuss a motive for the crimes at a news conference last Thursday.  

Eric Rommal, an agent from the FBI office in New Orleans, said investigators were still unable to say conclusively whether the fires were “bias-motivated” but evidence that has turned up so far points to Matthews’ involvement with black metal music, a subgenre of metal music that typically takes on anti-Christian, satanic and pagan themes and was tied to a string of church fires in the 1990s.

Though Matthews’ exact intentions in allegedly setting the fires are still unclear, a video he posted on YouTube mentions church burnings and a Facebook post reportedly voiced his disgust with Baptists, who he described in at least one post as “brainwashed people.”

CNN first reported that in a post four days before his arrest, Matthews wrote about what he termed “afrikan spirituality,” under the name Noctis Matthews, and said he cannot “stand all these baptists around here, bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was on mine.”

Matthews reportedly said in the post he wished “more blacks [sic] people would look into ancient beliefs of pre Christian Africa.”

He described himself in social media posts as a singer-songwriter for black metal groups and in a YouTube video connected to one of the groups that was posted first on March  19 and again on March 28, two days after the first church fire was reported, Matthews sings about a church burning.

In the video posted by YouTube user “Malice,” Matthews describes church burning in the song “Diabolical Soul Feast,” singing “the holy church is now destroyed” and “burning down in Odin’s name.”

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