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Federal hate crime charges filed against Louisiana church burning suspect

Louisiana church fire suspect arrested

The U.S. Justice Department says it's filing federal hate crime charges against a Louisiana man in connection with three fires that destroyed African American churches earlier this year. A news release from the department said 21-year-old Holden Matthews, the son of a sheriff's deputy, faces three counts of "intentional damage to religious property," which are hate crime charges. He's also charged with three counts of "using fire to commit a felony."

The June 6 federal indictment, unsealed Wednesday, says the fires were set "because of the religious character" of the properties. The three historic African American churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March, in and around the city of Opelousas. 

"Churches are vital places of worship and fellowship for our citizens and bind us together as a community.  Our freedom to safely congregate in these churches and exercise our religious beliefs must be jealously guarded,"  U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said in a statement. "Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts."

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Holden Matthews WWLTV

Matthews already faced state charges in the church burnings, which also include hate crimes, indicating authorities believe the fires were racially motivated. Matthews, who is white, has pleaded not guilty in the state case.

Testifying in a local court in April, Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning said investigators have "unequivocal" evidence against Matthews. Browning described cellphone records placing Matthews at the fire locations, and he said images on the phone showed all three churches burning before law enforcement arrived and showed Matthews "claiming responsibility" for the fires.

"He has clearly demonstrated the characteristics of a pathological fire-setter," Browning said.

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Browning said previously authorities were eyeing Matthews' interest in "black metal," an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.

The fire marshal said Matthews posted on Facebook about and showed interest in a movie called "Lords of Chaos," a recent film about the Norwegian black metal scene and associated violence in the 1990s.
 
If convicted, Matthews faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the three counts of damage to a religious property, an additional mandatory minimum of 10 years on the first count of using fire to commit a felony, and 20 years for the two subsequent counts.

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