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Confessed church arsonist sentenced to 23 years in federal prison

Holden Matthews’ sentencing includes three counts of intentional damage to religious property and one count of using fire to commit a felony for burning three historically Black Baptist churches

Katie Gagliano
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Confessed St. Landry Parish church arsonist Holden Matthews was sentenced in federal court on Monday.

Matthews was sentenced on Monday to 23 and a half years in prison for three counts of intentional damage to religious property, a hate crime under the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act, and one count of using fire to commit a felony for burning three historically Black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish in a 10-day span in March and April 2019.

The maximum sentence for the four counts was 70 years.

Judge Summerhays said while the case was not considered to be racially motivated he had to consider the effect the crime had on the church communities, bringing them back to a dark time of racial discrimination.

Addressing the court and parishioners for the first time in his statement, Matthews said that he was deeply sorry for his actions and wanted the Church communities to know that he found his faith in the Lord once again.

The hearing began Friday but was abruptly delayed after Summerhays announced there was new evidence that needed to be considered. Three phone calls between Matthews and his parents from the past 5 days were recorded and presented as additional evidence.

The Friday announcement came after clinical psychologist and Louisiana State University professor Mary Lou Kelley testified about her assessment of Matthews’ struggles with anxiety, depression and arrested social development. Kelley was asked by the defense to conduct a psychological evaluation of Matthews, which included several tests and a separate meeting with his parents.

Kelley noted Matthews had a history of alcohol and substance abuse, and at one point said he was drunk “each time he burned a church.”

Matthews is also slated for sentencing on three state hate crimes counts, two counts of simple arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building in Opelousas Monday afternoon. A staff member for 27th Judicial District Judge James Doherty said the state sentencing has been continued to an unspecified time and date.

The Rev. Kyle Sylvester, pastor of St. Mary Baptist Church, and others said Friday that while they have forgiven Matthews and continue to pray for him and his family, forgiveness does not equate to forgoing accountability. What Matthews did was wrong, and he needs to be punished, they said.

“I pray you see what you’ve done has not only appeased your thrill and appetite for attention, but it’s completely changed people’s lives,” Sylvester said.

The three congregations — St. Mary, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church — have risen from the ashes in the aftermath of the blazes, but both physical and emotional recovery is ongoing. The churches’ pastors and congregants have grappled with maintaining a home for Christ in their hearts while also mourning their physical religious homes and navigating the nagging question of “Why?”

Greater Union congregant Celina Richard and others looked at Matthews from the witness stand and posed that question Friday, communicating with him directly for the first time since the spring 2019 fires.

Richard recounted the agony she felt on April 2 as she imagined her deceased parents and the church’s forebears laid to rest feet from the burning worship house; those that built the church were now powerless to protect it. The retired teacher said she still grapples with how one young man could produce so much destruction.

“I know young people and that’s what hurts the most. That it was a young person and someone who already in their life had chosen to do something so horrible — that’s what bothers me the most,” Celina Richard said.

There was considerable physical and digital evidence pointing to Matthews, the 23-year-old son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy, in the arsons.

Investigators matched a charred Scepter gasoline can at the scene of the Mt. Pleasant fire, a pack of partially used shop rags and a lighter found in a truck registered to Matthews’s father to items Matthews purchased at a local Walmart hours before the first fire at St. Mary on March 26.

Video surveillance footage, eyewitness accounts and cell phone GPS records placed Matthews and the truck, a gold-colored Ford, at the scene of each fire.

Investigators also recovered photos Matthews took during the fires and days later, when he returned to the churches to view the damage, officials said. Matthews superimposed images of himself over the photos, even using some as mock-ups for album art for his black metal band, Pagan Carnage.

Black metal and Matthews’ desire for renown and acceptance among fans of the Scandinavian subgenre were painted at the center of the case. The musical style is associated with church burnings in Norway in the 1990s.

Norwegian bass player Varg Vikernes of the band Mayhem, one of the genre’s most notorious figures, was arrested and accused of setting the string of church fires, as well as killing one of his bandmates. It was noted that Matthews watched “Lords of Chaos,” a semi-fictionalized biopic detailing Mayhem’s criminal acts, in the months preceding the fire.

Kelley, the clinical psychologist, said Matthews glommed onto black metal as he rejected his parents’ Christian religious background and took on the persona of Vikernes as a means to shed his social struggles. Since middle school, Matthews’ mother had encouraged him to pray to cure his anxiety problems, but the lack of answered prayers turned to resentment of God and religion over time, she said.

In previous testimony, Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said Matthews’ bedroom was littered with posters, signs and memorabilia related to the film.

In his federal guilty plea in February, Matthews acknowledged the fires were an attempt to raise his profile as a black metal musician and he was emboldened by positive feedback to Facebook and social media posts about the church arsons.


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