Opelousas man sentenced for arson of three African-American churches

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Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church fire. Photo by Leslie Westbrook, The Advocate

Source: Dept. of Justice

LAFAYETTE, La. Holden James Matthews, 23, of Opelousas, was sentenced today, Nov. 2, to 300 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for intentionally setting fire to three African-American Baptist churches because of the religious character of those buildings, Acting UnitedStates Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook announced.

United States District Judge Robert R. Summerhays sentenced Matthews on three counts of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. §247(a)(1)—one count for each church—as well as one count of using fire to commit a federal felony, inviolation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(h). The fires, which Matthews set over a 10-day period in March and April of 2019, completely destroyed each of the church buildings.   Matthews was also ordered to pay restitution inthe amount of $590,246 to St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, $970,213.30 to Greater Union Baptist Church and $1,100,000 to Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church.

Matthews pled guilty to these charges Feb. 10. At his guilty plea hearing,Matthews admitted that between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to three Baptist churches with predominantly African-American congregations in the Opelousas area. First, on March 26, 2019, Matthews set fire to St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Port Barre.

Next, on April 2, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church, in Opelousas.

Then, on April 4, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas.

Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a “Black Metal” musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s. Matthews further admitted that, after setting the third fire, he posted photographs and videos on Facebook that showed the first two churches burning. Matthews admitted that he had taken these photographs and videos in real time on his cell phone, as he watched those churches burn, and that he had posted them to Facebook in an effort to promote himself in the Black Metal community.

“The members of St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mt. Pleasant Missionary 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 Van Hook. “The sentence handed down today will not bring their churches back butshould 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.”

“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 theirfaith,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The churches survivedfor nearly 150 years but did not survive this defendant’s warped act of hatred. I extend my sympathy tothe victims of this defendant’s arson spree, the congregants of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. The Justice Department will continue vigorously toprotect their right to worship and live in peace. The Justice Department stands against these acts of hateand the sentence handed down today reflects that. We will continue to protect the civil right of Americansto freedom of worship without fear of persecution.”

“ATF, working alongside our law enforcement partners, was able to bring our expertise and resources to investigate the arsons that threatened the well-being of St. Landry Parish,” said ATF NewOrleans Field Division Special Agent in Charge Kurt Thielhorn. “That collaborative effort led to a successful investigation and today’s sentencing of Holden Matthews, and allows the residents of St. Landry Parish to continue to worship without fear of an arsonist in their midst.”

“A cornerstone of our Constitution is the Freedom of Religion and the right to practice yourfaith freely and without intimidation.  Mr. Matthews’ acts of threatening and intimidating an entirecommunity by setting fire to three historically African American churches was unspeakable. We hope thattoday’s sentencing brings a level of comfort and satisfaction that justice has prevailed for the parishionersof 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,” stated FBI New Orleans Special Agent in Charge Bryan Vorndran.

This case was investigated by the ATF’s National Response Team, Lafayette Satellite Office of theATF’s New Orleans Field Division, Lafayette Resident Agency of the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office,Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal, Louisiana State Police, Louisiana Bureau of Investigation’s CyberCrimes Unit, St. Landry Parish Fire Department, and the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney J. Luke Walker, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana, and Trial Attorney Risa Berkower of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

 

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