When three predominantly black churches burned in a single Louisiana parish in the span of just 10 days, the news sent a shiver through the community that rippled across the country. Though the cause of the fires was not immediately known, the destruction of three pillars of the area’s black community recalled dark memories of a not-that-distant past.
Now, the man who stands accused of setting the fires has not only been charged with arson, he is facing three hate-crime charges, too.
The St. Landry Parish district attorney, Earl Taylor, filed the charges against Holden Matthews on Monday. In Louisiana, hate crimes include offenses perpetrated against an individual because of their race, sexual orientation, national origin, disability or other protected status. Taylor declined to comment on the charges.
Last week, Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a local sheriff’s deputy, was arrested and charged with three counts of arson for setting fires at St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26, Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on April 4.
Matthews pleaded not guilty to all charges Monday during an appearance in court conducted by video conference, according to the Advocate. Prosecutors have charged him with three counts of hate crimes, two counts of simple arson and one count of aggravated arson. He was denied bond.
At the hearing, officials said they found new photo and video evidence on Matthews’s phone placing him at the scene of all three fires, the Advocate reported. Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning testified that Matthews’s phone contained photos of the fires as they were starting and after first responders arrived.
The photos also indicated that Matthews had returned to the crime scenes after the churches burned to smoldering rubble, officials said, and a 10-second video is said to show him discussing the fires with a friend and mentioning that gasoline would be an effective method of starting a blaze.
Investigators said they also found news reports about the fires on Matthews’s phone, and Browning said that “he superimposed himself on these news reports claiming responsibility for these fires."
Last Thursday, at a news conference announcing Matthews’s arrest, officials and community leaders acknowledged the emotional strain the fires had placed on St. Landry Parish.
“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 the news conference.
Authorities said they had moved swiftly to arrest Matthews so that he could not strike another church.
"I felt relieved knowing that our congregation didn’t have to worry anymore,” said Harry Richard, a pastor at Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, La. “They are my main concern.”