Louisiana prosecutors have charged Holden Matthews with three hate crimes, one for each of the black churches he’s accused of burning down in St. Landry Parish.
The hate crime charges were added to several counts of arson involving a religious building, BuzzFeed News reports. Matthews, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, pleaded not guilty on Monday to all the charges. He was also denied bail by Judge James Doherty who, according to the Daily Beast, cited concerns about releasing the accused arsonist as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continue their investigation of the fires that burned down three historically black churches over a span of 10 days.
If found guilty, the 21-year-old could face up to 65 years in prison. And with federal authorities investigating the blazes, it’s possible Matthews could face federal charges as well.
Local investigators believe Matthews set the fires intentionally, dousing gasoline on the flames to accelerate the churches’ destruction. The first church burned down on March 26 in Port Barre, with two more churches set on fire in Opelousas, a majority-black town, shortly after. Each church was more than a hundred years old, and all were empty at the time of the blazes.
One fire marshal testified in court that Matthews even documented the fires on his phone and claimed responsibility for the burnings by placing images of himself over copies of news reports.
From CBS News:
The fire marshal described cellphone records placing Matthews at the fire locations, and he said images on the phone showed all three churches burning before law enforcement arrived and showed Matthews “claiming responsibility” for the fires.
“The evidence we have was unequivocal,” Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning testified. Browning also told the court he felt another fire was “imminent” if Holden were released.
“He has clearly demonstrated the characteristics of a pathological fire setter,” he said.
Authorities are reportedly investigating Matthews’ ties to Norwegian black metal music and neo-paganism, connections that are significant for their overlap with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. According to BuzzFeed News, Matthews talked about converting from Catholicism to paganism last year. In one social media post, Matthews focused his ire on Baptists in particular, calling them “a bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was mine.”