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UPDATE: Louisiana suspect in three black church burnings pleads guilty in federal and state court

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LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — UPDATE, 4 p.m.: Holden Matthews has also pleaded guilty to six counts in district court, in addition to his federal charges.

In a statement, Gov. John Bel Edwards commented on the situation, stating:

“These unthinkable acts deprived three church communities of not only their places of worship, but their sense of security. Holden Matthews’ actions came from a place of hate and intolerance and the charges he has pled guilty to speak to the serious and sickening nature of his crimes. 

“I have often said that hate is not a Louisiana value. I have visited and prayed with the congregations of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the aftermath of these fires and saw unshakable faith and strength in the midst of tragedy and beautiful love and forgiveness spring forth from pain. I ask that the people of our state continue to pray for and support these three churches as they rebuild and continue their missions.”

–La. Gov. John Bel Edwards

UPDATE, 12:20 p.m.: The suspect in a series of fires that destroyed St. Landry Parish African American churches in 2019 has pleaded guilty to three counts of the Church Arson Prevention Act and one count of using fire to commit a federal felony.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Holden Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a “Black Metal” musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s. Matthews further admitted that, after setting the third fire, he posted photographs and videos on Facebook that showed the first two churches burning.  Matthews admitted that he had taken these photographs and videos in real-time on his cell phone, as he watched those churches burn, and that he had posted them to Facebook in an effort to promote himself in the Black Metal community.

Matthews will be sentenced on May 22. He faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a statutory maximum of 70 years in prison.

ORIGINAL POST: Holden Matthews had earlier pleaded not guilty to the charges arising from arson fires that destroyed three churches in an around the city of Opelousas. But, court records revealed that there had been plea negotiations going on in the case.

Matthews is white and the destruction of the three historic black churches evoked memories of civil rights-era terrorism. But race is not mentioned as a factor in the charges. Matthews was charged 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’s also charged with three counts of “using fire to commit a felony.”

The indictment said the fires were set “because of the religious character” of the properties.

Three churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March 2019, in an area roughly 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of New Orleans in St. Landry Parish. Matthews’ father is a parish sheriff’s deputy.

Investigators said Matthews had shown interest in “black metal,” an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal music. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.

Matthews also faces state charges in connection with the fires. Don Richard, an assistant district attorney in St. Landry, told The Associated Press he hopes to begin resolving the state case after the federal plea but declined to discuss details.

The state charges include two counts of simple arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building.

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