In less than two weeks in late March and early April, fires devastated three historically black churches in one Louisiana parish. Then, on the evening of April 10, police arrested a suspect in connection to all three fires: the 21-year-old son of the sheriff’s deputy, who has since been charged with hate crimes.
While the case is still developing, here’s what we know so far about the three fires, and the suspect behind them.
How did the fires start?
In a span of ten days, the New York Times reports that three churches suffered devastating fires: St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26, Greater Union Baptist on April 2, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on April 4. All three churches are historically black and in the St. Landry Parish, which is nearly 42 percent black. In each case, officials said they found “suspicious elements,” though they didn’t immediately connect the fires or label them as arson attacks.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” State Fire Marshal H. Browning said in a statement on April 4, following the second fire. “That is why it is imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”
Was anyone hurt?
At the time of each fire, all churches were empty, so no one was hurt. However, the churches suffered extensive damage; Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, for example, is nearly completely gone.
Who is the main suspect?
On the evening of April 10, investigators arrested 21-year-old Holden Matthews, who was turned in by his father, Deputy Roy Matthews. Not much is known about him, but CBS News reports that social media accounts that appear to belong to Matthew reveal an interest in black metal music, and that he was the lead singer for the band Vodka Vultures. Per the Daily Beast, on Facebook, Matthews commented on two memes about the far-right metal musician Varg Vikernes, though neither of his comments revealed much about his beliefs.
On April 11, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning told reporters that Matthews had been charged with three counts of simple arson on a religious building, each of which carry a maximum penalty of 15 years. Furthermore, he confirmed that all three fires were “intentionally set” and related.
Do we know a motive?
In the immediate aftermath, the NAACP called the arson attacks “domestic terrorism”.
On April 15, Matthews was hit with three charges of hate crimes, the New York Times reports. (He was already facing three counts of simple arson on a religious building.) In Louisiana, a hate crime charge carries a maximum five-year sentence, and a simple arson charge carries a maximum 15-year sentence.
Following his plea of not guilty on April 15, state district judge James Doherty denied Matthews bond and set a September trial date.
How has the community responded?
In the aftermath of the Greater Union fire, Reverend Harry J. Richard preached that “they burned down a building, [but] they didn’t burn down our spirit.” Pastor Kyle Sylvester of St. Mary’s Baptist Church also spread a message of resilience: “There’s still people that need to be helped, there’s still ministry that has to be done, so we can’t let this setback stop us from doing what God has initially called us to do.”
The mayor of Opelousas — the seat of St. Landry parish — told CNN that the fires have shaken the community, and called the attacks “hideous.”
“The relevance and the impact on the people in the surrounding communities and especially the congregation of each of these churches, it’s hurtful and there may be some fear that is being exhibited by those who are a part of the three churches,” Mayor Julius Alsandor said.
This post will be updated as the case develops.