Prosecutors in Louisiana have charged suspect Holden Matthews, 21, with federal hate crimes for allegedly burning several black churches in the St. Landry Parish region earlier this year, according to NBC.
Matthews is facing three counts of intentional damage to religious property which is a hate crime under the Church Arson Prevention Act. In addition, he was charged with three counts of using fire to commit a felony. He is already charged with several state offenses, including a state hate crime violation.
The press release issued by the Justice Department says that Matthews set the fires “because of the religious character” of the churches.
If convicted, Matthews could face up to 20 years for each count of intentional damage to religious property and a $250,000 fine.
Matthews allegedly set fires at three churches in the St. Landry Parish area in March and April, using gasoline to ignite the blazes.
“Churches are vital places of worship and fellowship for our citizens and bind us together as a community,” U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana David Joseph said in a statement. “Our freedom to safely congregate in these churches and exercise our religious beliefs must be jealously guarded. Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement that the fires were “especially painful” because they evoked “a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” according to ABC 6.
In a press conference, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that Matthews is the son of deputy sheriff Roy Matthews, according to NBC. Guidroz says Matthews’ father was unaware of his alleged involvement in the arsons.
The possible motivations for the arsons are still unclear, but police mentioned Matthews’ interest in black metal, and said they were looking into a possible connection with white supremacist ideology. In April, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said in a hearing that Matthews had posted on Facebook about a Norwegian movie that involved church burnings, according to ABC 6.