Holden Matthews, accused of setting fire last year to three predominantly black St. Landry Parish churches, entered plea deals Monday in state and federal courts, facing a minimum of 10 years in prison.
Matthews pleaded guilty to three federal charges of intentional damage to religious property, which are hate crimes under the Church Arson Prevention Act. He also pleaded guilty to one federal count of using fire to commit a felony.
Matthews also pleaded guilty to six charges at the state level; three hate crime charges, two simple arson charges and one charge of aggravated arson. He will be required to register with the state as an arsonist upon his eventual release from prison.
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“This is a result of a lot of hurting, a community that’s been trying to heal and it’s been an extraordinary show of faith. But this ended with justice,” said Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning outside the St. Landry Parish Courthouse Monday. “What we want to tell this community is every bit of resources and every agency across America came together. This was the No. 1 thing to solve when this happened and to provide assurance that it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Matthews pleaded guilty to setting the fires last spring intentionally to gain notoriety in the black metal music community. He copied similar crimes committed in the 1990s by a Norwegian black metal band.
He faced two other arson charges that were conditionally dropped as part of his plea deal. Matthews must complete his sentence and maintain good behavior to keep from being prosecuted for the additional charges.
“Today begins the process of Holden accepting responsibility for the destruction of the churches,” Federal Public Defender Dustin Talbot, who represented Matthews, said in a statement. “As was made clear in the factual basis submitted today in support of his plea, Holden’s actions were motivated by the fact that these were religious properties and in no way were motivated by the racial makeup of the congregations.”
Federal Judge Robert S. Summerhays is scheduled to sentence Matthews for the four charges he pleaded guilty to on May 22. Matthews is then set to be sentenced for his six state-level charges on May 26.
Matthews faces a sentence between a mandatory minimum of 10 years and a statutory maximum of 70 years in prison for his four federal charges. His state sentence could be served alongside his federal sentence, according to his federal plea deal, though the judges in his cases would have to agree to that. Summerhays said Matthews may also be ordered to pay restitution.
“We look forward to the next hearing before Judge Summerhays where the court and the public will learn that Holden had the social and mental development of an adolescent and that he committed these acts in a naive attempt to use images of the fires to gain acceptance into an online music community,” Talbot said in his statement. “Holden now fully understands the seriousness and gravity of his actions and is deeply remorseful for what he has done and the pain he has caused the congregations of these churches.
The 22-year-old son of a St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s deputy changed his plea during a hearing Monday in front of Summerhays. Monday was originally scheduled to be the start of his federal trial. He initially entered a plea of not guilty in June.
“Today, the defendant has taken responsibility for the burning and destruction of three of our churches,” said U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph in a statement. “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.”
Before taking a plea deal, Matthews could have faced a maximum of 20 years per count of intentional damage to religious property. He also faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years for the first count of using fire to commit a felony and 20 years for the subsequent counts, which would run consecutively. In addition, he faces up to three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution.
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Matthews burned three historically black baptist churches over a 10-day span. He set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church, which is in Port Barre, on March 26; Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2; and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on Highway 182 south of Opelousas on April 4.
Matthews was arrested on April 10 after authorities tied him to the crimes through cell phone data and a purchase he made at Walmart that included a gas can hours before the first fire.
Matthews targeted the churches because of their religious character to “raise his profile” as a black metal musician, according to his plea. He wanted to emulate a Norwegian black metal musician who burned down a series of churches in the 1990s.
Each of the churches Matthews burned was completely destroyed. He used gasoline, a gas can and shop rags to intentionally set the churches on fire.
The fires affected interstate commerce because the materials Matthews used crossed state lines and Matthews used his J.P. Morgan Chase debit card, which used interstate wires to complete the transaction.
Matthews told “fellow black metal enthusiasts” that he burned down St. Mary and Greater Union, according to his plea. He posted photos and videos on Facebook that he took in real-time as the churches burned. He received a positive reaction after posting the videos and photos, which emboldened him to set fire to Mount Pleasant.
In taking a plea, Matthews agreed that had the federal case gone to trial, prosecutors with the U.S. District Attorney’s Office would have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he burned the three churches because of their religious character to gain notoriety in the black metal music community.
“It’s another step toward closure. It’s a lot better today than it was six months ago,” said Freddie Jack, the president of Seventh District Baptist Association, which all three burned churches are a part of. “(The church community) are a forgiving people, a loving people. They’re not going to be judgmental or harsher than they need to be. They’re probably praying for him continually like they have from day one.
Follow Ashley White on Twitter @AshleyyDi. Lafayette Daily Advertiser reporter Andrew Capps contributed to this report.