The son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy is facing federal hate crime charges in connection with three fires that destroyed African American churches this year.
Holden Matthews, 21, was charged in a six-count federal indictment that was unsealed Wednesday.
The indictment charges Matthews with three counts of “intentional damage to religious property,” which the Department of Justice said is a hate crime under the U.S. Church Arson Prevention Act. He is also charged with three counts of “using fire to commit a felony.”
The June 6 federal indictment, unsealed Wednesday, says the fires were set “because of the religious character” of the properties. The three historic African American churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March, in and around the city of Opelousas.
“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,” U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said in a statement. “Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts.”
If convicted, Matthews could face up to 20 years per count of intentional damage to religious property. He also faces an additional mandatory minimum of 10 years for the first count of using fire to commit a felony and 20 years for the subsequent counts, all to run consecutively.
The 21-year-old also faces up to three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution.
“Federal law protects our freedom to practice religion in a safe environment without the threat of discrimination or violence,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “Any alleged violation of federal civil rights laws are taken extremely seriously by the Justice Department and will be prosecuted.”
The fires happened over a 10-day period. The first blaze torched the St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26 in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time, and no one was injured.
Investigators used surveillance video, cellphone tracking and a Walmart receipt to help identify Matthews, who was arrested in April. They moved quickly, arresting him within 12 hours because they were worried that “other crimes were imminent,” Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning said at the time.
Matthews is the son of a St. Landry Parish deputy, who Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said was heartbroken when told his son was a suspect.