Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday described the three fires that destroyed predominantly black churches in rural Louisiana as an “evil act” committed by the son of a sheriff’s deputy.
Holden Matthews was arrested Wednesday on three counts of simple arson for fires that on destroyed the churches in St. Landry Parish over ten days. The fires were set on March 26, April 2, and April 4, and destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, respectively. Matthews, 21, was booked into jail Wednesday evening.
Louisiana State Fire Marshal “Butch” Browning, at a Thursday morning press conference, called the fires “an attack on our God and our religion.”
“In my career, I have never seen such a spiritual mission that has come home so quickly,” said Browning, who noted that Matthews’ arrest was quick in part because “we felt that other crimes were imminent.”
An arrest warrant reportedly showed that officials connected Matthews to the crimes through the charred remains of a brand of gas can found at the scene of the April 4 fire. Matthews allegedly used his debit card and ID to purchase that same brand of gas can, along with a lighter and a 10 pack of automotive shop towels on March 25, The Advocate reports.
The same color and model pickup that Matthews drives was also present at two of the churches shortly before the fires were reported to 911, according to video footage referenced in the arrest warrant.
FBI agent Eric J. Rommal, also at the press conference, said the bureau is investigating whether the crimes were “bias-motivated.”
“Right now we are just making sure we gather all the facts,” he said, when pressed on the issue.
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. The comments revealed little other than that they indicated his familiarity with the figure.
The pagan circles Matthews and Vikernes frequented can be popular with neo-Nazis. Matthews frequently posted about pagan beliefs, and recently uploaded a picture of a gun and a knife with the caption “I carry this..... maybe not legally but I only truly follow the law of Odin..... which says as you said, arm yourself...... Odins advice> modern law.” Odin is a pagan Norse god.
One of the pagan pages Matthews was active on specifically forbade racism and “nazi stuff.” Matthews also appeared aware of the religion's white supremacist associations. In one post, a group member noted that a drawing of a pagan figure had a swastika-like design on his belt. “well yea the belt gives him extra strength and power..... white power lmao jk jk I had to,” Matthews wrote.
While Gov. Edwards said he didn’t know what Matthews’ alleged motive was, it cannot be justified or rationalized. It was an evil act.”
“Let’s pray for Mr. Matthews and his family," Edwards added, and the audience responded with a resounding “yes.”
Pastor Gerald Toussaint, of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, said, “We’ve suffered, but I think it has a higher cause.”
“Even though we’ve lost our church—our building, our building—look who’s been brought together,” Toussaint said. “Our country has to find out that the God we serve does not look on the outside. He sees the heart.”