A 22-year-old black metal fan has pleaded guilty on Monday to setting fire to three black churches in Louisiana.
Holden Matthews admitted in court to setting fires to St. Mary Baptist Church Greater Union Baptist and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church over a 10-day period in March and April 2019. All three churches are historically black and in the St. Landry Parish, which is nearly 42 percent black.
Matthews pleaded guilty to 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, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(h). The fires completely destroyed each of the church buildings.
At the plea hearing, Matthews admitted that, between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to three Baptist churches in the Opelousas, Louisiana area. First, on March 26, 2019, Matthews set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana. Next, on April 2, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church, in Opelousas, Louisiana. Then, on April 4, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana. The fires Matthews set destroyed each of the church buildings. 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 Department of Justice will remain unwavering in its protection of the freedom to practice religion without the threat of discrimination or violence," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. "Matthews admitted to setting fire to three churches because of their religious character. His disgraceful conduct violated the civil rights of the church's parishioners and harmed their communities."
"Today, the defendant has taken responsibility for the burning and destruction of three of our churches," said U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph of the Western District of Louisiana. "The freedom to safely congregate and worship in our churches is a fundamental right of all Americans and will be vigorously protected by my office and our law enforcement partners. I want to thank the ATF, FBI, St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, St. Landry Parish Fire Department, Louisiana State Fire Marshal, Louisiana Attorney General's Cybercrime Unit, Louisiana State Police, and the Florida State Fire Marshal for their hard work and seamless collaboration on this case."
"Holden Matthews made a conscious decision to randomly target and destroy churches within his own community. His atrocious actions inflicted severe pain and grief upon these congregations, as well as all of St. Landry Parish," said Special Agent in Charge Bryan Vorndran of the FBI's New Orleans Field Office. "Throughout this investigation, the men and women of the FBI, ATF, Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office, St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, St. Landry Parish District Attorney's Office, Louisiana State Police, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry's Cybercrime Unit, and the Florida State Fire Marshal's Office worked tirelessly to bring Holden Matthews to justice."
"Protecting our communities is a vital part of our mission," said ATF Special Agent in Charge Kurt Thielhorn. "ATF will continue to provide expertise and resources to investigate arson at houses of worship which threaten the well-being of our communities. I would like to thank all of our law enforcement partners for working tirelessly to ensure justice will be served."
Matthews was arrested after investigators found a gas can at the scene of one of the fires and traced it back to a local Walmart and linked it to Matthews's credit card.
According to The Daily Beast, a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Matthews showed he was active in pagan and black metal pages, and that he commented on two memes about far-right former neo-Nazi metal musician Varg Vikernes, who served 15 years in prison for killing a fellow metal musician and burning churches in Norway. Matthews was also the lead singer for a band called VODKA VULTURES, according to CBS News.
One of the suspect's friends, Nygyl Bryyn, told the Associated Press that Matthews had long been upset with his parents for not supporting his musical efforts. He also said Matthews had been discouraged in the months leading up to the fires as Bryyn urged him to improve the quality of his recordings.
Matthews will be sentenced on May 22. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 70 years in prison.