Prosecutor adds hate crimes to charges against Louisiana church fire suspect

The man suspected of setting fire to three black churches in Louisiana has been charged with hate crimes under a state statute, St. Landry Parish District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Donna Slate said Monday.

Holden Matthews, 21, pleaded not guilty to three hate crime counts. He also pleaded not guilty to two counts of simple arson of a religious building and one count of aggravated arson of a religious building, she said.

‘Robbed of their sacred space’

He was denied bond at a Monday court hearing, as requested by District Attorney Earl Taylor.

The suspect has no history of violence or prior arrests, authorities said, and he may have been influenced by “black metal” music and its “associated history with church burnings.”

Fires burned St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4, terrorizing congregants at the historically black places of worship. Pastors at nearby churches undertook numerous security measures, including sleeping in their churches or in the church parking lots to ward off would-be arsons.

As their church burned, they linked arms and prayed

Matthews expressed disgust with Baptist beliefs on Facebook. Posting under the name Noctis Matthews, he wrote that he cannot “stand all these baptists around here, bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was on mine.”

He also said he wished that “most blacks people would look into ancient beliefs of pre Christian Africa.”

Attempts to reach Matthews’ lawyer were unsuccessful.

The suspect’s father is a local sheriff’s deputy who broke down when he found out about his son’s alleged involvement in the fires, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said.

“He was shocked and hurt as any father would be,” Guidroz said. “He was in terrible shape.”

According to a court affidavit, it was the charred remains of a Scepter brand gas can, which federal agents found at Mount Pleasant Baptist, that led police to a Walmart in Opelousas and then to Matthews, according to an affidavit.

Walmart informed investigators two cans were purchased March 25 — fewer than 3 hours before the first fire — along with a 10-pack of automotive cloths and a lighter, the affidavit states. The receipt show the purchase was made with a debit card in Matthews’ name.

Investigators also obtained surveillance photos of Matthews and his dad’s Ford pickup truck, which investigators say he was driving minutes before the Greater Union Baptist Church caught fire, the affidavit said. Cell phone data also puts Matthews in the area of the fires, it said.

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