Louisiana black church fires: Suspect denied bond, hate crime charges added

OPELOUSAS, La. –  A state judge Monday ordered Holden Matthews held in jail without bond after prosecutors argued he was a flight risk and offered evidence that he captured video on his phone of burning three predominately black churches in St. Landry Parish. 

The District Attorney also added three state hate crime charges against Matthews, who pleaded not guilty to those and arson charges. Matthews was charged with two counts of simple arson of a religious building, one count of aggravated arson of a religious building.

Twenty-Seventh Judicial Court Judge James Doherty of Opelousas denied Matthews’ bail, citing concerns about releasing the 21-year-old and a pending investigation by the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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Under Louisiana law, the hate crimes could apply to various protected groups including race, age, gender and religion. The District Attorney’s Office did not specify a basis for the hate-crime charges against Matthews.

The son of a St Landry Parish Sheriff’s deputy is accused of setting the churches on fire in a 10-day span. His parents, Roy and Angela Matthews, were present at the hearing. Matthews appeared stoic with his court-appointed attorney, Quincy Cawthorne, via a video feed from the jail. 

Matthews was arrested in connection with the fires Wednesday. Authorities are investigating Matthews’ involvement in the music genre of black metal, whose followers have been tied to church fires and extreme acts in other parts of the country. 

Holden Matthews, 21, was booked into the St. Landry Parish Jail on three counts of Simple Arson of a Religious Building. (Photo: Submitted Photo)

Assistant District Attorney Charles Cravins argued Matthews was a danger to the community and a flight risk.

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said Matthews may face federal hate crime charges from the FBI and ATF investigation. He also testified Matthews intentionally set the fires, used gasoline as an accelerant and documented his actions through videos found on his cell phone.

Once Matthews was arrested, investigators found photos of the fires on his phone after they were set and possibly before 911 was called, Browning said. There were videos on Matthews’ phone of firefighters attempting to extinguish them and photos of the churches after the fires had been extinguished. 

Investigators also found news reports of the fires on Matthews’ phone. He had superimposed himself on those reports claiming he was responsible, Browning said. There was a video investigators found on Matthews’ phone after his arrest that shows him talking with a friend about burning churches in St. Landry Parish with gasoline, Browning said. 

Browning also brought up Matthews’ ties to black metal, an extreme genre of metal music whose followers have been tied to church fires and extreme acts in other parts of the country. Matthews told the FBI the movie “Lords of Chaos,” which loosely documents a Norwegian black metal band, may have been a reason the churches were set on fire but didn’t implicate himself, Browning said. 

All three fires were connected and intentionally set, Browning said. 

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Cravins argued that Matthews was a flight risk, which Cawthorne contended wasn’t possible because Matthews didn’t have the resources. Browning, while on the stand, said, “you don’t have to have money to run.”

An arrest affidavit showed investigators tied him to the crimes through surveillance video that showed a truck registered to his father at the fires, the purchase of a gas can and cell phone tower data. 

While investigating the fire sites, authorities found a charred Scepter brand red gas can near the origin of the fire, according to court records. Investigators said they found that someone, later identified as Matthews, had purchased the 2-gallon gas can at about midnight from WalMart in Opelousas, less than three hours before the first fire on March 25. 

In surveillance footage from WalMart, Matthews is seen getting into a light-colored pick-up truck with a bed cover, according to the affidavit. A beige Ford is registered to Matthews’ father, Roy Matthews. 

Surveillance footage collected from homes and businesses near each church shows a light-colored, extended cab pick-up truck around the area at the time of the fire, according to court records. 

St. Mary Baptist Church, which is in Port Barre, was the first church that burned in a fire early in the morning on March 26. The Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas burned down a week later. On April 4, a fire destroyed Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on Highway 182 south of Opelousas.

 A pre-trial court hearing is set for July. Jury selection and a trial will begin on Sept. 10 and 17. 

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Follow Ashley White on Twitter @AshleyyDi. 

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