A man arrested in connection with fires at three historically black Louisiana churches was identified as Holden Matthews, 21, said Gov. John Bel Edwards. Edwards said the fires were a reminder of “a very dark past of intimidation and fear.”
“I don’t know what this young man’s motive, I don’t know what was in his heart … but it cannot be justified,” Edwards said.
Matthews is charged three counts of simple arson on a religious building, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years.
“We can now confirm all three of these fires are intentionally set and all three of these fires are related,” Browning said.
The motive is still under investigation but Browning said Matthews may have been influenced by “black metal music,” which has been associated to church burnings.
Matthews is the son of a sheriff’s deputy, according to Sheriff Bobby Guidroz. The sheriff disputed earlier media reports that Matthews’ father turned him in.
“As we all know by now, Holden’s father is an employee of mine, a fine man,” the sheriff said. “He was shocked and hurt, as any father would be, and my heart went out to him yesterday when we notified him to come in, and I talk to him, and the news was broke to him,” Guidroz said. “He was in terrible shape.”
St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre burned on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and two days later, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the same town.
The fires are believed to have been intentionally set, a local elected official said Tuesday.
Officials are also investigating a fourth, smaller fire on March 31 at the predominantly white Vivian United Pentecostal Church in Caddo Parish, more than 200 miles north of St. Landry. The blaze was intentionally set, but Edwards said they did not believe that fire was connected to the ones Matthews is suspected of setting.
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 the “spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”
Once a common occurrence
Church burnings were a common occurrence in the Jim Crow era. And fires at black churches — especially those in the South — immediately bring to mind such racist attacks.
“For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said. “As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence.”
Several black churches in the South were burned in 2015 shortly after the mass murder of nine people at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, though it is unclear if those fires were racially motivated.
According to the latest data from the National Fire Protection Association, fires within religious and funeral properties have been on the decline for decades. Between 2007 and 2011, 16% were ruled intentional, according to the association.