Mugshot of Holden Matthews

Mugshot of Holden Matthews

Holden Matthews, the suspect accused of burning three historically black St. Landry churches in a 10-day span, has been charged with hate crimes and other charges by a federal grand jury.

The indictment, unsealed Wednesday, charges Matthews with three counts of intentional damage to religious property, a hate crime charge under the federal Church Arson Prevention Act, and three counts of using fire to commit a felony. The indictment was filed Thursday.

The three churches – St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas – were destroyed between March 26 and April 4. Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy, was arrested in the fires after physical evidence and video surveillance linked him to the crimes, officials say.

The federal indictment alleged Matthews burned the churches “because of the religious character of these properties.” The indictment did not reference a potential racial bias in the attacks.

The federal charges come on top of six state charges levied in mid-April, including three charges under the state hate crimes statute. In addition to the hate crimes counts, Matthews faces two counts of simple arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building.

U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana David C. Joseph said Matthews was arraigned Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to all six charges. He’s currently in federal custody and is expected in federal court again Monday for a detention hearing, Joseph said.

Matthews was already denied bond on the state charges at a hearing April 15.

According to the 1974 Speedy Trial Act, federal criminal cases are required to go to trial within 70 days of the defendant’s indictment. Joseph said his office is working closely with St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor’s office on resolution of the charges.

Officials said the evidence against Matthews includes a red gasoline can found at the scene, records from a Walmart of Matthews purchasing an identical gasoline can hours before the first fire, video surveillance of Matthews in the area of all three fires, and photos and videos pulled from Matthews’ phone of him at the scenes during the fires.

Joseph and Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said in a release that freedom of religion is a cornerstone of U.S. democracy and should be protected.

“Churches are vital places of worship and fellowship for our citizens and bind us together as a community. Our freedom to safely congregate in these churches and exercise our religious beliefs must be jealously guarded,” Joseph said. “Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts.”

The intentional damage to religious properties charges carry a maximum prison term of 20 years per count. The first count of using fire to commit a felony carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years followed by 20 years for each of the subsequent counts, with all being served consecutively, the release said.

Matthews also faces up to three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution for each of the counts, the release said.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dominic Rossetti and John Luke Walker and trial attorney Risa Berkower of the Justice Department’s Criminal Section, Civil Rights Division, are prosecuting the case.

The statute Matthews was charged under, the Church Arson Prevention Act, was signed into law July 3, 1996 after a wave of church arsons decimated many historically African American churches across the United States in 1995 and 1996.

According to the statute, the law made it illegal to damage religious property or obstruct a person’s exercise of their religion where the offense is in, or affects, interstate commerce. It also made it illegal to intentionally deface, damage or destroy religious property because of the race, color or ethnic background of the people associated with the property. 

Between 1995 and 1996, 145 black churches were among 349 houses of worship burned or bombed nationwide. Most of the church attacks, especially against African American churches, took place in the South, with 111 of the burned black churches located in southern states, a January 2000 report from the National Church Arson Task Force said.

After passing the federal legislation, the bill’s leaders, Reps. Henry J. Hyde and John Conyers and Sens. Lauch Faircloth and Edward Kennedy said in a joint statement the attacks were “an epidemic.”

“… the entire nation has watched in horror and disbelief as an epidemic of church arsons has gripped the nation. The wave of arsons, many in the South, and a large number directed at African American churches, is simply intolerable, and has provoked a strong outcry from Americans of all races and religious backgrounds,” the sponsors said, according to the Congressional Record.

During the arson wave, 13 African American churches were destroyed in Louisiana. Four of the religious buildings were burned on Feb. 1, 1996, when perpetrators set fires at three black churches and a benevolent society hall around East Baton Rouge Parish.

The buildings – Cypress Grove Baptist Church in Zachary, and St. Paul’s Free Baptist Church, Sweet Home Baptist Church and St. Thomas Chapel Benevolent Society hall, all in Baker – were damaged in an overnight spree. The perpetrators lit stacked tires on fire in one church, doused two in gas and ignited one with a Molotov cocktail, the task force report said.

Follow Katie Gagliano on Twitter, @katie_gagliano.