He burned down the three churches in St. Landry Parish, federal prosecutors said Monday, because he wanted “to raise his profile as a ‘Black Metal’ musician.”
Matthews, the son of a sheriff’s deputy, pleaded guilty Monday to setting fire to the churches “because of the religious character of those buildings.” Prosecutors say Matthews wanted to “promote himself” among fans of black metal, a subgenre of heavy metal typically characterized by Satanist lyrics, guttural vocals and thrashing guitar at breakneck tempo.
His plan, prosecutors say, was to mimic the rampage of church burnings carried out in the 1990s by extremist black metal band members in Norway as a crusade against Christianity.
Matthews sent videos and photos of the burning churches to his friends — accompanied by song lyrics and album art that the arson inspired him to create, according to exhibits in federal court.
“Listen to that sound dude haha beautiful,” he wrote of one church’s destruction in a video message to a friend. “There was absolutely nothing left my dude.”
“Holden Matthews made a conscious decision to randomly target and destroy churches within his own community,” Bryan Vorndran, special agent in charge at the FBI’s New Orleans field office, said in a statement. “His atrocious actions inflicted severe pain and grief upon these congregations, as well as all of St. Landry Parish.”
Matthews, who was arrested by his father’s sheriff’s department last April, also pleaded guilty to three state hate crime charges, as well as three counts of arson of a religious building. He faces between 10 and 70 years in prison, and will be sentenced on both the federal and state charges in May.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Matthews’s federal public defender, Dustin Talbot, stressed Matthews’s actions were not racially motivated. He said Matthews had “the social and mental development of an adolescent,” and he “committed these acts in a naive attempt to use images of the fires to gain acceptance into an online music community.”
“Holden now fully understands the seriousness and gravity of his actions and is deeply remorseful for what he has done and the pain he has caused the congregations of these churches,” Talbot said.
From March 26 to April 4 in St. Landry Parish, flames ravaged St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said the fires were “especially painful, because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear.” The NAACP described the arson as “the same domestic terrorism that has been the hammer and chisel used to chip away at the humanity of Black Americans and the suppression of our political power.”
“My church has a lot of history,” the Rev. Gerald Toussaint told the Daily Advertiser about Mount Pleasant, which is more than 140 years old. “I don’t understand it. What could make a person do that to a church?”
All the while, Matthews seemed to revel in the chaos, according to evidence.
Matthews started bragging about the arson to numerous black metal enthusiasts in the days after each church fire. He bristled at news articles that questioned whether the fires were racially motivated, insisting in private messages that he wanted to target Christians in general. He only chose the three Baptist churches, he said, because they “just have a lot of wood on them.”
“I want them to … understand it’s arson,” he wrote to one friend. “I want them to be scared.”
Prosecutors said the “positive reaction” Matthews received on Facebook and from his friends “further emboldened him” to continue setting fires.
To one friend, he sent song lyrics he wrote that “Miiiiight be based on real events lol.”
“Starry night, moon is bright, soon the skies will fill with smoke,” went the song he called “Burnt offerings.” “Fire spews, from the pews.”
“Bruh! That’s straight up!!” his friend said, later adding, “Praise you!!!” He said he sent a video of one of the church fires Matthews set to friends in Norway, who “loved it.”
“They said where was this cat in the ’80s lol,” he wrote, referring to the era when black metal started to evolve, particularly in Norway.
In the early 1990s, Norwegian police tied an alarming string of church burnings to the underground black metal scene, including the Fantoft Stave Church, which dated to the 12th century. Varg Vikernes, one of the most influential black metal acts of the era, was found guilty of arson in several of those cases (along with the murder of his bandmate in Mayhem) — but he was acquitted in the Fantoft Stave case.
Vikernes put a picture of the historic church’s burned shell on the cover of his 1993 solo album titled, “Aske,” or “Ashes” in English.
Without naming Vikernes, prosecutors say Matthews “sought to emulate a Norwegian musician who gained notoriety within the Black Metal community in the 1990s by burning down a series of churches in Norway.” Matthews’s parents testified at a June 2018 detention hearing that just two months before the fires, their son watched “Lords of Chaos,” a 2019 film about Vikernes and the Norwegian black metal scene, the Associated Press reported. A friend told BuzzFeed News he was almost certain Matthews had been inspired by the movie.
“Most people in our world adamantly did not like the movie and what it stood for and how it portrayed our culture,” the friend, Nygyl Brynn Blackwolf, told BuzzFeed. “But Holden liked it.
Text messages included in court exhibits show that Matthews, like Vikernes, was planning to use a photo of the burning church on the cover of the next album for his band, Pagan Carnage.
He sent a few options for album art to a friend in India. There were two photographs of a church engulfed in flames, with the words, “Pagan Carnage,” superimposed in the nearly illegible scrawl of metal-band logos. In another
“Which one you like more?” Matthews asked.
“You burned this?” the friend asked in disbelief. “Is that a church?”
Matthews said yes, and yes.
“Damn I am speechless dude,” the friend said. “That art needs a better logo.”
Authorities recovered at least one DIY record from Matthews. Inside the CD case, he wrote, “Dedicated to the churches of St. Landry Parish,” and taped two matches next to the disc.