Burnings Of 3 Historically Black Louisiana Churches Deemed Hate Crimes, Suspect Denied Bail

All three fires took place in the same parish.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

| April 17 2019,

3:48 pm

Update (April 16, 2019): Holden Matthews received three state hate crime charges for setting three predominantly Black Louisiana churches on fire.

Matthews pleaded not guilty via video conference during a hearing on Monday, reports CBS News.

He was also charged with two counts of simple arson of a religious building and one count of aggravated arson of a religious building. Investigators believe the fires were racially motivated.

Matthews was denied bail because law enforcement deemed him a flight and safety risk.

"We felt that he was an immediate risk to public safety," said Fire Marshal Butch Browning. "In my mind, I felt another fire was imminent."

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Browning also explained the evidence connecting Matthews to the crime, according to The Daily Advertiser. 

Videos of the fires and news reports about the incidents were found in his phone. His cellphone also placed him at the scene of each fire. A gas can and oil rags found by investigators was traced to a Walmart purchase by Matthews about three hours before he set the first fire at St. Mary Baptist Church on March 25. The Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church were burned on April 4 and 6, respectively.

Surveillance footage from Walmart reportedly showed Matthews getting into a pickup truck owned by his father, Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Matthews. Matthews’ parents were at the hearing, and at one point, Roy tearfully exited the courtroom.

Browning also mentioned Matthews’ affinity for black metal, a violent subgenre of metal rock music. The fire marshal said Matthews was a fan of Lords of Chaos, a film about a black metal band that allegedly sparked violence in Norway during the 1990s.

"The evidence we have was unequivocal," Browning said. "He has clearly demonstrated the characteristics of a pathological fire setter."

Matthews is also facing federal hate crime charges. A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for July, and the trial will begin on September 10.

OriginalWithin two weeks, three historically Black churches have burned in the same Louisiana parish sparking an FBI investigation into the "suspicious" nature of the fires.  

The Associated Press reports the first fire occurred on March 26 at the St. Mary Baptist Church, and the second was on Tuesday at the Greater Union Baptist Church. Then, the third was on Thursday morning at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. There was also a fourth fire "intentionally" set at a predominantly Black church in Caddo Parish on March 31.

All three fires took place in the St. Landry Parish — a parish comprised of 56% white and 41% Black residents. These majority Black churches were at least 100 years old.

Rev. Gerald Toussaint, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and a truck driver, did not learn about the fire until his wife was alerted via a social media post. 

"I’m trying to find out who did it, why they did it, did it have anything to do with me,” Toussaint told The New York Times. “I don’t know none of this.”

Fire officials are exploring all possible reasoning for the three incidents, but there is no clear motive behind any of the fires. The churches were reportedly vacant at the time of each blaze.

According to The New York Times, officials are considering the fires were connected in some way and may have been arson. At this time, there is also no confirmation on whether racism was behind the incidents. Authorities have yet to identify suspects, as well.

State Fire Marshal H. Browning said something is going on here. However, he did not elaborate on what he thought it might be.

“There is clearly something happening in this community,” Browning said on Thursday. “That is why it is imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”

According to Louisiana State Fire Marshal spokesperson Ashley Rodrigue, more information is needed to connect the four fires. 

“But just as we haven’t connected the three in St. Landry, we haven’t connected the one in Caddo,” she said on Friday.

The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are cooperating with Lousiana's ATF in the investigation.

In the meantime, about 10 church leaders from the area came together to support one another during this tough time. A GoFundMe has also been established to help rebuild the church. 

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