Louisiana man sentenced to 25 years for arson of African-American churches

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FILE – This file booking image provided by the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal shows Holden Matthews, who was arrested Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana. Matthews is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in federal court, where he faces hate crime charges. (Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP, File)

ST. LANDRY PARISH, La.On Monday, 23-year-old Holden Matthews, of Opelousas, was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release for intentionally setting fire to three African-American Baptist churches because of the religious character of those buildings.

Matthews was also ordered to pay restitution of $590,246 to St. Mary Baptist Church, $970,213.30 to Greater Union, and $1,100,000 to Mt. Pleasant.

Specifically, Matthews was sentenced on three counts of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, one count for each church — as well as one count of using fire to commit a federal felony. The fires, which Matthews set over a 10-day period in March and April of 2019, completely destroyed each of the church buildings. 

Matthews pled guilty to these charges on Feb. 10, 2020. At his plea hearing, Matthews admitted that, between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to three Baptist churches with predominantly African-American congregations in the Opelousas, Louisiana area.

First, on March 26, 2019, Matthews set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana. Next, on April 2, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church, in Opelousas, Louisiana. Then, on April 4, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana.

The fires Matthews set destroyed each of the church buildings. 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.

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.

These churches trace their origins to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and, for generations, were a place for predominantly African American Christians to gather, pray, worship, and celebrate their faith,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.

The churches survived for nearly 150 years but did not survive this defendant’s warped act of hatred. I extend my sympathy to the victims of this defendant’s arson spree, the congregants of Saint Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The Justice Department will continue vigorously to protect their right to worship and live in peace. The Justice Department stands against these acts of hate and the sentence handed down today reflects that. We will continue to protect the civil right of Americans to freedom of worship without fear of persecution.

The members of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church are the ones who have suffered the most from these heinous crimes and have lost not only physical buildings, but sentimental items that cannot be replaced,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook of the Western District of Louisiana. “The sentence handed down today will not bring their churches back but should send a clear message that there is a high price to pay for this type of destruction and violence and these type of crimes will not be tolerated by this office.

“ATF, working alongside our law enforcement partners, was able to bring our expertise and resources to investigate the arsons that threatened the well-being of St. Landry Parish,” said Bureau of Alcho, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) New Orleans Field Division Special Agent in Charge Kurt Thielhorn. “That collaborative effort led to a successful investigation and today’s sentencing of Holden Matthews, and allows the residents of St. Landry Parish to continue to worship without fear of an arsonist in their midst.”

“A cornerstone of our constitution is the Freedom of Religion and the right to practice your faith freely and without intimidation,” said FBI New Orleans Special Agent in Charge Bryan Vorndran. “Matthews’s acts of threatening and intimidating an entire community by setting fire to three historically African American churches were unspeakable. We hope that today’s sentencing brings a level of comfort and satisfaction that justice has prevailed for the parishioners of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church as well as for all of the citizens of St. Landry Parish affected by these heinous acts.”

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