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La. Man Pleads Guilty To Federal Charges Over Torching Historically Black Churches

Holden Matthews, who was arrested in April over suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana, has pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP
Holden Matthews, who was arrested in April over suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana, has pleaded guilty to federal charges.

Holden Matthews, the white son of a sheriff's deputy, has pleaded guilty to federal charges over setting three historically black churches on fire in Louisiana during a 10-day period last March and April. The religious institutions were completely destroyed.

"His atrocious actions inflicted severe pain and grief upon these congregations," Bryan Vorndran, the special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans Field office, said in a statement.

Matthews, 22, has stated that he committed the crimes in an attempt to break into the "black metal" music scene. According to court documents, he was attempting to raise his profile in that scene by copying church arson attacks in Norway in the 1990s.

"Holden's actions were motivated by the fact that these were religious properties and in no way were motivated by the racial makeup of the congregations," his defense lawyer Dustin Talbot told NPR. "Today begins the process of Holden accepting responsibility for the destruction of the churches."

Matthews had initially pleaded not guilty to each count of his six-count indictment last June.

On Monday, he changed some of those pleas. The 22-year-old pleaded guilty to three counts of "intentional damage to religious property," for destroying the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, La., the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, La., and the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas. He also pleaded guilty to one count of "using fire to commit a felony."

According to his defense lawyer, prosecutors agreed they will drop two remaining counts of "using fire to a commit a felony" as part of a plea agreement. Prosecutors did not immediately respond to NPR's request for confirmation. Matthews is scheduled to be sentenced on May 22.

"All the churches were built in rural areas decades ago and had served generations of predominantly black families through weddings, funerals and religious services," NPR reported last April.

After the attacks, Katie Gagliano from The Advocate told NPR that the pastors of the churches were praying they were not race-based. Such actions would be particularly concerning due to the history of attacks against historically black churches in the area.

Prosecutors have stated that they have abundant evidence against Matthews.

"The defendant's cell phone was in the presence of each of these fires. Examination of his phone shows that he has pictures and photos and videos of these fires as they developed," federal prosecutor Risa Berkower said at Matthews' detention hearing last June. "An examination of his Facebook accounts afterwards shows that he was bragging to people on Facebook that he actually had done these crimes."

"It was sheer luck really that no one was harmed by these crimes when he actually committed them," she added. The churches were "burned completely to the ground," she noted.

Talbot contended that the "black metal" explanation was "not as nefarious as the others," such as race.

"This was a young man who's trying to break into this subgenre of music, and ... as horrific as that is, the way that you do it is you make a name for yourself by burning a church and putting it on the cover of your album," he stated at the detention hearing. "It's not a person who woke up with hate in their heart and wanted to go and burn down churches. It's someone who was unduly influenced by this black heavy metal community."

According to prosecutors, Matthews faces between 10 and 70 years in prison for his crimes. The Associated Press reported that he also faces state charges.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.