Mugshot of Holden Matthews

Mugshot of Holden Matthews

St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor has filed a motion to deny bail to accused church arsonist Holden Matthews.

The hearing is set for Monday at 9 a.m. and the motion will be heard by St. Landry Parish District Judge James Doherty. Matthews is also scheduled to appear before Doherty for a bond hearing on May 2 after his was initially denied bond.

Matthews is accused in a string of arsons that destroyed three predominantly black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish in a 10-day span. The first was St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26; followed by Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2; and finally Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4.

Based on sales records, video footage and cell tower data, authorities identified Matthews, 21, as a probable suspect early Wednesday and arrested him within 12 hours. They considered Matthews an immediate threat to public safety and “averted what could have possibly been other fires,” Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said.

Browning and other federal, state and local law enforcement agents gathered at a joint press conference Thursday to confirm Matthews was the suspect in question. Matthews was arrested on three counts of simple arson on a religious building.

Each count carries a maximum 15-year penalty, he said.

St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said Matthews has no known history of violence or prior arrests. Investigators are not actively looking for other suspects.

Information from Matthews’ arrest affidavit tells of multiple evidence trails linking him to the crimes.

A crucial piece of evidence was a red Scepter-branded gas can found among the debris at one of the fire scenes. Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators traced the purchase to an Opelousas Walmart, where a debit card under Matthews’ name was used to purchase the gas can, a lighter and shop towels barely three hours before the first fire, the affidavit says.

Matthews was also required to submit his photo ID for the purchase and surveillance video captured him buying the supplies.

Additionally, surveillance video placed a truck like the beige 2002 Ford model 6000 pickup registered to Matthews’ father at or near the scene of each of the three fires, particularly the fire at Greater Union Baptist Church, arrest documents say.

The camera footage showed the truck passing the church, stopping in the parking lot for over 20 minutes and then leaving, just as the glow of fire became visible inside the church. The truck later passed by and stopped again, the affidavit says.

The truck remained nearby even after 911 was called.

Finally, cell phone tower data placed Matthews at or near the churches at the time of the fires, the documents say.

Matthews’ father, Roy Matthews, is a St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s deputy. Guidroz said Deputy Matthews was “shocked and hurt” when he learned his son was a suspect but helped facilitate his arrest by getting him to a neutral location so he could be apprehended with less risk. Holden Matthews didn't resist, he said.

Investigators would not confirm if race was a motive in the burnings, but the fires were reminiscent of historical targeting of African-American churches. Thirty predominantly African-American churches were burned across the United States in 1996, including five in Louisiana.

"Any questions as to the potential motives of hate are continuing to be vetted by federal authorities," Browning said in a release.

Eric J. Rommal, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New Orleans office, said agents would continue gathering evidence before making any declarations.

Follow Katie Gagliano on Twitter, @katie_gagliano.