OPELOUSAS, La. — The first fire engulfed St. Mary Baptist Church in late March, incinerating nearly everything that stood within the historically black church. Pews turned to ash, and the brick walls burned so hot that they collapsed into piles of smoldering rubble in Port Barre.
Then another black church in St. Landry Parish burned, and then another — three in a span of 10 days, sending black communities into a panic and authorities racing to stop an arsonist from destroying another house of worship.
Law enforcement in southern Louisiana found their suspect close to home: Holden Matthews, the son of a parish sheriff’s deputy.
Matthews, 21, was arrested Wednesday and charged with three arson counts amid fears the arson was motivated by hate.
“It has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said at a news conference.
Matthews is the son of St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Matthews, who was “shocked and hurt” at the news of the arrest, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said. Guidroz rebuffed earlier reports that Matthews was taken into custody by his own father.
That is false, he said from the podium.
“This case was solved with boots on the ground and butts in the air,” Guidroz said, though he added Roy Matthews helped direct his son away from his home to make it easier for the arrest.
State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said physical and “technological” evidence, including video surveillance, led investigators to believe Matthews intentionally burned the churches — “an attack on the house of God,” Browning said.
Federal authorities are investigating whether the arson attacks constitute hate crimes. “We need to go where the evidence takes us," an FBI official said at the news conference.
Authorities said they arrested Matthews within 24 hours of identifying him and moved quickly out of fear he would strike another church.
Matthews was interested in “black metal” music, authorities said, which has been linked to notorious church fires in Norway.
The three arson charges each carry a maximum sentence of 15 years, Browning said.
Matthews’s mother and father did not immediately return a request for comment.
Harry Richard’s church was the second to burn. On Thursday, he embraced Opelousas Police Chief Martin McClendon in a warm hug after the conference.
“I felt relieved knowing that our congregation didn’t have to worry anymore,” said Richard, a pastor at Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, which was nearly destroyed on April 2. “They are my main concern. I was reassured that law enforcement is on our side.”
Authorities said they were confident Matthews was the arsonist and that his arrest brings to a close a row of church burnings that sent waves of panic across southern Louisiana.
On March 26, flames annihilated St. Mary Baptist Church. Days later, a blaze struck Greater Union Baptist Church.
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas burned April 4, consuming the church’s interior. It was the third predominantly black church to burn down in St. Landry Parish in the 10-day span.
A fourth fire March 31 was reported more than 200 miles away at the predominantly white Vivian United Pentecostal Church in Caddo Parish, La., but authorities have not publicly linked that fire to Matthews.
For some, the recent fires recall a dark history of attacks and threats against black churches in the South. During Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, black churches were targeted with fires, bombings and threats.
In 2015, a white-supremacist gunman opened fire on a prayer group at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine black people. Nearly 200 years before, Emanuel AME’s predecessor had been burned down in 1822 by Charleston’s white leaders, who feared an insurrection by the city’s enslaved residents.
A man in Mississippi pleaded guilty to arson last month for setting fire to a black church in 2016. He had attempted to disguise the arson as a hate crime.
As authorities investigated the St. Landry fires, church leaders were resilient, though baffled by the attacks.
“My church has a lot of history,” the Rev. Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church told the Daily Advertiser, noting that it was more than 140 years old. “I don’t understand it. What could make a person do that to a church?”
Greater Union had served worshipers for more than 100 years, according to Richard, whose grandfather helped found the church. He plans to rebuild.
“I believe that God is on our side,” he said. “He’s my security. He is all of our security.”
Horton reported from Washington. Tim Elfrink, Kayla Epstein and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.