St. Landry Parish, LA – The FBI has joined the probe into a string of suspicious church fires at historically black churches in the rural town of Opelousas in what officials have described as “suspicious circumstances.”
Holden Matthews, the son of sheriff’s deputy, charged with burning three Louisiana black churches.
The first fire was reported on March 26, at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. On April 2, a fire was reported at the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas. The third and final fire was reported Thursday, April 4, at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas. All three churches were at least 100 years old, in rural areas, and burned at night. Congregants are wondering why their churches were targeted.
Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning was with the Baton Rouge Fire Department on Feb. 1, 1996, when fires burned three black churches and a fourth church building on the same night: Cypress Grove Baptist in Zachary, St. Paul’s Free Baptist, Sweet Home Baptist, and St. Thomas Chapel Benevolent Society Hall.
“It was, in fact, a crime of hate,” said Browning.
At times in U.S. history when race has been at the heart of political and social upheaval, including the Jim Crow era and civil rights era, black churches were the targets of hate in the form of fires and bombings.
Holden Matthews, 21, a white resident of St. Landry Parish, the county where the fires occurred, was charged with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, each count of which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said.
“We are extremely, unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes on these three churches,” Browning told a news briefing in Opelousas, Louisiana, about 60 miles (97 km) west of Baton Rouge.
Matthews, the son of Deputy Roy Matthews of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, was taken into custody late Wednesday, about 12 hours after he was identified as a suspect, Browning said.