Son of Louisiana deputy pleads guilty to burning down 3 black churches to boost ‘black metal’ cred

The son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy admitted Monday to burning down three historically black churches last year to “raise his profile as a ‘black metal’ musician,” federal prosecutors said.

Holden James Matthews, 22, of Opelousas, pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana. He also pleaded guilty to using fire to commit a felony.

Matthews faces 10 to 70 years in federal prison at his May 22 sentencing hearing. He is the son of St. Landry Parish Deputy Roy Matthews, authorities said last year.

"This is a win for faith," Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said in a statement Monday. "Today's guilty plea is a validation of the hard work our agency, Sheriff Bobby Guidroz and his deputies, state and federal partners put into this case. It's also an opportunity for closure and continued healing for the affected church communities."

Gov. John Bel Edwards reiterated a statement he's made since Matthews' April 2019 arrest -- that hate is not a Louisiana value.

"I have visited and prayed with the congregations of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the aftermath of these fires and saw unshakable faith and strength in the midst of tragedy, and beautiful love and forgiveness spring forth from pain," Edwards said in a news release.

“These unthinkable acts deprived three church communities of not only their places of worship, but their sense of security. Holden Matthews’ actions came from a place of hate and intolerance and the charges he has (pleaded) guilty to speak to the serious and sickening nature of his crimes.”

"Today, the defendant has taken responsibility for the burning and destruction of three of our churches," U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said Monday. "The freedom to safely congregate and worship in our churches is a fundamental right of all Americans and will be vigorously protected by my office and our law enforcement partners."

FBI officials agreed.

“Holden Matthews made a conscious decision to randomly target and destroy churches within his own community. His atrocious actions inflicted severe pain and grief upon these congregations, as well as all of St. Landry Parish,” Special Agent in Charge Bryan Vorndran, of the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office, said in a statement.

The fires, which were set over a 10-day period from March 26 to April 4, 2019, destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre and two Opelousas churches, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. Each church was about 100 years old and had predominantly black congregations.

"Matthews admitted to setting the fires, because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a 'black metal' musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s," according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Matthews further admitted that, after setting the third fire, he posted photographs and videos on Facebook that showed the first two churches burning.

“Matthews admitted that he had taken these photographs and videos in real time on his cell phone, as he watched those churches burn, and that he had posted them to Facebook in an effort to promote himself in the black metal community.”

A statement of facts attached to his plea agreement states that Matthews used gasoline, a gas can and shop rags to set the fires. A trove of evidence photos included in the court records show what appears to be a Walmart receipt dated March 25, 2017, hours before the first fire was set at St. Mary’s Baptist Church.

The receipt is for a two-gallon Scepter brand gas can, a lighter and a 10-pack of shop towels. The charred remains of the gas can would later be found amid the rubble of one of the burned churches.

Surveillance images included among the court documents show Matthews making the purchases and putting them into a truck that prosecutors said belonged to his parents before driving away. According to The New York Times, the pickup truck was also spotted in security footage shot near the scene of each fire.

The Walmart purchases were made with Matthews’ J.P. Morgan Chase debit card, court records show. His cellphone was also tracked to the areas of the fires.

“In addition, prior to setting the third fire at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Matthews used the internet, a facility of interstate commerce, to disclose to fellow black metal enthusiasts that he had burned the other two churches, including by posting photographs and videos on Facebook that Matthews had taken in real time using his iPhone as those churches burned,” the documents say. “Matthews posted these photographs and videos on Facebook in an effort to promote himself as a black metal musician. Matthews received a positive reaction through Facebook to those materials, which further emboldened him to set fire to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.”

Included in the evidence photos among court records were images that Matthews apparently created as cover art for an EP he hoped to record. In one image, a black-clad figure holding a knife stands in front of one of the burned churches, using an image found on Matthews’ cellphone.

The words “Pagan Carnage” are scrawled on the cover art. It was not clear from the documents if that was the name of Matthews’ musical act.

The crimes stunned Opelousas, a city of about 16,000 that serves as the parish seat of St. Landry’s Parish. The parish sits in the heart of Louisiana’s Creole country and is known as the center of Zydeco music.

Edwards said during the news conference after Matthews' arrest that the fires were "especially painful" because they evoked memories of "a very dark past of intimidation and fear."

Watch Gov. John Bel Edwards and law enforcement officials talk about the spate of arson fires below. 

"Nobody should ever fear for safety in their house of worship or fear that their church will be destroyed," Edwards told reporters. "I don't know what this young man's motive was. I don't know what was in his heart. I can say, it cannot be justified or rationalized. These were evil acts."

The governor said hate and violence could not be condoned in the community.

"This is a reflection of one depraved individual," he added. "It is not a reflection on the state of Louisiana."

St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said Roy Matthews broke down when he learned his son was the suspect in the arson case. Guidroz corrected local media reports about the deputy’s role in the case, saying he had not turned his son in.

"He was shocked and hurt, as any father would be," Guidroz said during a news conference last April. "My heart went out to him yesterday when we notified him to come in and I talked to him, and the news was broke to him. He was in terrible shape."

Guidroz said the investigation was successful due to thousands of hours of teamwork from local, state and federal officials.

"This case was solved because of the boots on the ground and the butts in the air," Guidroz said.

According to prosecutors, the case was investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Response Team; the Lafayette Satellite Office of the ATF's New Orleans Field Division; the Lafayette Resident Agency of the FBI's New Orleans Field Office; the State Fire Marshal's Office; the Louisiana State Police; the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation's Cyber Crimes Unit; the St. Landry Parish Fire Department; and the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office.

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