Louisiana authorities arrested 21-year-old Holden Matthews on Wednesday night in connection with a series of three fires allegedly set at historically black churches in St. Landry Parish over the course of 10 days. Matthews, the son of a St. Landry Parish deputy sheriff, faces charges of simple arson for each fire.
Police allege Matthews struck St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre on March 26, the Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2, and Mount Pleasant Baptist in Opelousas on April 4. The fires brought down walls and reduced much of the churches’ interiors to rubble, though no one was hurt. Investigators say they found “suspicious elements” in each case. They have declined to identify a motive. The FBI and the ATF have been assisting local law enforcement in the investigation.
There was also a fourth fire, which investigators believe had been “intentionally set,” at a predominantly white church in a parish three hours away on March 31, but it is unclear whether this case is connected with the others.
St. Landry is a rural area in Louisiana with a population that is 56 percent white and 41 percent black. The pastor at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, the Rev. Gerald Toussaint, told the New York Times that relations between black and white people in the parish were generally good. Pastors in the area have reportedly taken to installing security cameras and sleeping in their churches, or in cars outside their churches, as precautionary measures.
The NAACP released a statement on the fires, which read in part, “The spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.” Black churches have long been the target of racist domestic terrorism in the form of bombings, arson, and armed assaults. Based on the most recent data available, hate crimes in the U.S. have been on the rise in recent years. The FBI reported 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, a 17 percent increase from 2016, making it the third year in a row that the number of such incidents has increased.