The Department of Justice announced that 23-year-old Holden Matthews has been sentenced to 300 months, or 25 years, in prison after admitting to burning down three Black churches in Louisiana last year.
Matthews will also have three years of supervised release and has been ordered to pay restitution of $590,246 to St. Mary Baptist Church, $970,213.30 to Greater Union Baptist Church, and $1,100,000 to Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, according to the Justice Department's statement.
“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,” he added.
A man accused of burning down 3 historically Black churches in Louisiana is charged with federal hate crimes.
Holden James Matthews intentionally destroyed the churches because of their "religious character" according to the indictment. He faces up to 110 years in prison. pic.twitter.com/JTr9kPFzN7
— AJ+ (@ajplus) June 12, 2019
The high-profile case caused outrage in 2019 when Matthews burned down all three churches over a 10-day span. As Blavity previously reported, Matthews is also the son of Landry Parish Sheriff's Office deputy Roy Matthews.
According to WBNS, it was his father who turned him in. He later said he was inspired by Varg Vikernes, the former neo-Nazi metal musician who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting fires at three Norway churches, as Blavity previously reported.
Matthews pleaded guilty in February and admitted to burning down St. Mary Baptist Church in the town of Port Barre on March 26, 2019, Greater Union Baptist Church in the city of Opelousas, on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, also in Opelousas on April 4.
The 23-year-old told prosecutors he did it in order to raise his profile within a local music community and even posted photos of the fires to his Facebook page. Police also were able to use his cellphone GPS to place him at the site of each fire.
“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 Van Hook of the Western District of Louisiana in a statement.
“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,” he added.
No one was hurt in the fires but the communities around the churches were devastated by their loss. Last year, Pastor Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church held a press conference where he said the fire would not shake the church's resolve.
“We’ve suffered, but I think it has a higher cause,” he said. “Even though we’ve lost our church—our building, our building—look who’s been brought together. Our country has to find out that the God we serve does not look on the outside. He sees the heart.”
Retired NFL player Benjamin Watson, who played for the New Orleans Saints for years, led efforts to contribute funding to help rebuild the churches. Fundraising efforts ended up bringing in more than $2 million to rebuild the churches, according to The New York Times.
The attack followed reports from both the FBI and Justice Department saying white supremacist terrorist acts were increasingly becoming the most important concern for authorities nationwide.
“Matthews’s acts of threatening and intimidating an entire community by setting fire to three historically African American churches were unspeakable," said FBI New Orleans Special Agent in Charge Bryan Vorndran.
"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,” he added.