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Associated Press

Guilty Plea to Federal Charges in Black Church Burnings

02-10-2020

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — The aspiring ‘black metal’ musician who was arrested in a series of fires set at African American churches in Louisiana last spring pleaded guilty Monday to four federal criminal counts.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release that Holden Matthews pleaded guilty to three counts of intentional damage to religious property, a federal hate crime. He also pleaded to one count of using fire to commit a felony. He entered the pleas in federal court in Lafayette. Sentencing is set for May 22.

Investigators said Matthews had shown interest in “black metal,” an extreme subgenre of heavy metal music.

“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,” the U.S. Attorney’s statement said.

His self-promotion included taking pictures and videos of two of the burning churches and posting them to Facebook, the release said.

Matthews faces a minimum 10-year prison sentence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. The charges carry a maximum total sentence of 70 years — 20 for each of the hate crimes and 10 for the use of fire in a felony.

Matthews, 21 at the time of his arrest last year, is white and the destruction of the three historic black churches in St. Landry Parish evoked memories of civil rights-era terrorism. But race is not mentioned as a factor in the charges.

The indictment said the fires were set “because of the religious character” of the properties.

Three churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March 2019, in an area roughly 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of New Orleans in St. Landry Parish. Matthews’ father is a parish sheriff’s deputy.

The first fire was at the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old, with mostly black congregations.

The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.

Matthews also faces state charges in connection with the fires. Don Richard, an assistant district attorney in St. Landry, told The Associated Press he hoped to begin resolving the state case after the federal plea but declined to discuss details.

The state charges include two counts of simple arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

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