St. Landry Parish, LA – The 21-year-old son of a St. Landry sheriff’s deputy has been charged with arson and hate crimes, after he allegedly burned down three historically-black churches in the same area within 10 days.
The series of devastating fires began on March 26, when St. Mary Baptist Church burned to the ground in Port Barre, KNOE reported.
On April 2, a fire erupted at the Greater Union Baptist Church in Landry Parish, followed by a blaze at Mt. Pleasant Baptist church in Opelousas just two days later.
All three churches were empty when they were burned to the ground, according to BuzzFeed News.
Holden Matthews’ father turned his son over to police on April 11, KNOE reported.
Matthews initially faced two counts of simple arson and a single count of aggravated arson, according to The Washington Post.
Three additional charges for violation of the state’s hate crime law were filed on Monday, and federal hate crime and arson charges may be forthcoming, NBC News reported.
Investigators outlined some of the evidence against Matthews during his first court appearance on Monday.
According to Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning, investigators found photos of the fires on Matthews’ phone, The Washington Post reported.
Many were taken just as the blazes were started, and others were snapped after firefighters began to arrive at the scenes.
"We felt that he was an immediate risk to public safety," Browning told the court, according to NBC News. "In my mind, I felt another fire was imminent."
The phone also contained photos of the smoldering embers left behind by the blazes – evidence that Matthews returned to the scene of his alleged crimes, The Washington Post reported.
Browning told the court that Matthews had various news articles about the blazes on his cell phone, and that “he superimposed himself on these news reports claiming responsibility for these fires.”
Investigators also found a receipt that showed that Matthews had purchased a fuel can and a package of oil rags similar to those found at the fires, NBC News reported.
The opened package of oil rags and a lighter were recovered from inside the suspects’ truck.
“At this time, the investigative team is still vetting several potential motives,” the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal said in a statement shortly after Matthews’ arrest, according to KNOE.
“However, information investigators have uncovered, and that Matthews has offered, suggests a possible connection with a genre of music called ‘black metal’ and its associated history with church burnings in other parts of the world, which have been documented in movies and books,” the statement read.
During the hearing, Browning noted that Matthews had a particular interest in “Lords of Chaos,” a movie in which a Norwegian black metal lead musician set multiple churches ablaze, BuzzFeed News reported.
Matthews was also a regular contributor on various pagan Facebook pages, and discussed conversion from Catholicism to paganism.
He complained about Baptists in one post, and referred to them as “a bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forces on their ancestors just as it was mine.”
Browning said that Matthews “demonstrated the characteristics of a pathological fire setter,” and said that the evidence against him is “unequivocal,” according to the Huffington Post.
Matthews has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and was ordered to be held without bail, NBC News reported.
His trial is scheduled to begin in September.
He faces up to 65 years in prison if convicted, St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor told BuzzFeed News.
Meanwhile, the St. Landry Parish community is working to gather the funds needed to rebuild the torched churches.
By Thursday morning, nearly 35,000 people had contributed over $1.8 million to a GoFundMe campaign in support of the cause.