A white man charged with torching three historically African American churches in a 10-day span to raise his profile in the "Black Metal" music community pleaded guilty on Monday to federal hate crime charges, officials said.
Holden James Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a sheriff's deputy, changed his plea from not guilty to guilty during a federal court hearing in Lafayette, officials said.
Matthews was indicted by a federal grand jury in June, charged with three counts of using fire to commit a felony and three counts of intentional damage to religious property, which are hate crimes that fall under the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, officials said.
He pleaded guilty Monday to one count of using fire to commit a felony and three counts of intentional damage to religious property, according to federal officials.
“Today, the defendant has taken responsibility for the burning and destruction of three of our churches,” U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph of the Western District of Louisiana said 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."
He said Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the "religious character of these buildings" and in an effort to raise his profile as a "Black Metal" musician, a music genre with roots in the Norwegian heavy metal scene that reportedly was the inspiration of several church burnings in that country in the early 1990s.
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division said Matthews also admitted to taking and posting photographs and videos on Facebook showing the first two church burnings in hopes of promoting himself in the Black Metal community.
"His disgraceful conduct violated the civil rights of the church’s parishioners and harmed their communities,” Dreiband said in a statement.
Matthews faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 70 years in prison, officials said. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 22.
He was arrested in April after investigators traced three gas cans found at one of the burned churches to an area Walmart store and discovered through credit card receipts and surveillance video that they were purchased by Matthews, officials said.
At the time of his arrest, officials described Matthews as the son of a St. Landry Parrish sheriff's deputy and that he had ties to "Black Metal."
Matthews' reign of terror began on March 26, 2019, with an arson fire at the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana, officials said.
On April 2, he set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, and two days later he torched the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, also in Opelousas, officials said. All three churches are in St. Landry Parrish.
A fourth fire was set during the same time span 220 miles from St. Landry Parrish, but investigators said Matthews was not connected to the blaze.
"The hate crimes committed by Holden Matthews in St. Landry Parrish, Louisiana, serve as a stark reminder of the current climate in America that is rife with racism and anti-blackness," the NAACP said in a statement. "Far too often, black communities find themselves subjected to the ills of white supremacists that seek to diminish and hinder our hope, progress and standing in this country. This act of domestic terrorism proves to be no different. Churches are incredibly influential in Black culture and serve as a safe space for convening. All Americans deserve to feel safe in their churches, schools, and homes."
The fires drew national attention and Vice President Mike Pence traveled to St. Landry Parrish to condemn the acts and voice support for the congregations displaced by the blazes.
“No one should ever fear for their safety in a house of worship, anywhere in this country, anywhere in the world. Attacks on communities of faith must stop,” Pence said at the time, citing a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 18, 2018, that left 11 people dead and seven wounded and another shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, in which one congregant was killed and three were injured, including the rabbi.
Following the arson fires, churches and religious groups throughout Louisiana and the nation donated more than $2 million to a GoFundMe site established by the Seventh District Baptist Association, a 150-year-old nonprofit religious organization, to help rebuild the three burned churches.
Matthews still faces state charges stemming from the fires. =