Governor: La. church burnings ’were evil acts,” son of deputy arrested

Updated: Apr. 11, 2019 at 7:35 PM CDT
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ST. LANDRY PARISH (WVUE) - The son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy is in custody in connection with recent church fires in St. Landry Parish, according to state officials.

Multiple law enforcement sources said that the suspect is 21-year-old Holden Matthews, who was taken into custody Wednesday evening. He has been charged with three counts of simple arson on a religious building.

Matthews is the son of St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Matthews.

“We can now confirm all three of these fires are intentionally set and all three of these fires are related,” State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said.

Matthews is accused of setting fire to The St. Mary Baptist Church in Point Barre, March 26, to the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, April 2, and to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, April 4. Church officials say they believe their churches were targeted. The churches were empty at the time of each fire and no one was hurt.

“These were evil acts,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “We are better than this.”

The motive is still under investigation but Browning said Matthews may have been influenced by “black metal music." The music influenced protests against Christianity across the world starting in the 1990s.

Opelousas residents like Gabriel Savoie are relieved law enforcement made an arrest.

“No one was going there to party. They were going there to worship the Lord and that’s the sad thing to see someone burn it down,” said Savoie.

Savoie lives right next door to Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas. He's not a member there but says the parishioners are his friends.

"Good people, good people. It teared me up the morning of the fire."

Savoie hopes churchgoers at all three congregations can begin to heal now that a suspect is in custody.

The FBI will lead an investigation into the motive, and a hate crime has not been ruled out. Matthews could face federal charges if that is the case.

“At first we thought maybe it might have been an electrical problem. But then when the second burning occurred, I realized that it was our sister church also and in a rural area. And then two days later, the third occurred, and so it leads me to think that we are maybe being targeted, yes,” said Freddie Jack with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association.

Officials say Matthews had no prior arrests and no history of violence.

“Though the spirit is still strong, the landmark is destroyed," Browning said.

Governor John Bel Edwards, who spoke at the press conference, released a statement Wednesday night:

“Our churches are sacred, central parts of our communities and everyone should feel safe in their place of worship. We do not know the cause of these fires in St. Landry and Caddo parishes, but my heart goes out to each of the congregations and all of those who call these churches home. I have directed the State Fire Marshal to work with local law enforcement to aggressively investigate the cause of these fires. If you have any information that may help determine who or what caused these blazes, you may submit tips anonymously by calling the Arson Hotline at 1-800-256-5452. In times like these, it is important for us to remember the words from John 15:12: ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’ I’m asking the people of Louisiana to follow this teaching and join their prayers to mine as we love and support these congregations.”

The ACLU of Louisiana also released a statement on the fires:

"This string of suspicious church fires, including three in St. Landry Parish alone, is deeply disturbing and a reminder of the violence that people of color continue to face across the South. Black churches have long been targets of racial terrorism, and recent years have seen a steady rise in white supremacist violence. While the investigation into the cause of the fires continues, it’s on all of us to speak out against hate and intolerance and stand in solidarity with the communities affected by these tragedies.”

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