Police have taken a suspect believed to have neo-Nazi connections into custody in connection with suspicious fires at three historic African American churches in Louisiana according to multiple news sources in the area.
Federal officials say Holden Matthews, 21, the son of a St. Landry, La., parish sheriff’s deputy was arrested Wednesday, the Office of the Louisiana State Fire Marshal confirmed. He was booked on three counts of Simple Arson of a religious building.
U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said Matthews is in state custody, and said federal agents stand shoulder to shoulder with the victims of “these despicable acts.” A Thursday news conference at the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office is planned.
The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old, with mostly African American congregations.
The churches were empty at the time of the fires.
Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning, who declared all three fires suspicious, said “If you’re going to turn to a house of God, turn to it for resurrection.”
The investigation was joined by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and many people from state agencies in Louisiana.
On his Facebook page, Matthews says he is the lead singer and songwriter with a band called Vodka Vultures. He is also connected to the black metal and pagan movements, both of which have significant neo-Nazi followings. According to The Daily Beast, Matthews commented often about his pagan beliefs, including one about a Norse god with an upload of a picture of him with weapons captioned: “I carry this…..maybe not legally but I only truly follow the law of Odin….. which says as you said,arm yourself…… Odins advice> modern law.”
In social media, The Daily Beast reported, Matthews also commented on memes about a far-right metal musician named Varg Vikernes, who served 15 years in a Norway prison for burning churches there, and for the killing of a fellow metal musician.
Vikernes is seen as influential by other far right killers including Anders Brevik, who sent him a manifesto before killing 77 people in a mass shooting.
NAACP president Derrick Johnson called the fires “domestic terrorism” in a statement on Thursday and said the incidents outlined an increasingly hostile racial climate nationwide.
“The arrest of Holden Matthews for the horrific burnings of Black churches in Louisiana is just another example of the hate fueled times that we live in. In African-American communities in the South, church burnings are historically linked to expressions of racism and domestic terrorism,” he said. This is the same domestic terrorism that has been the hammer and chisel used to chip away at the humanity of Black Americans and the suppression of our political power.”
Johnson cited a rise in hate crimes since President Trump took office and said hie organization has asked Congress for hearings on the resurgence of the incidents.
No injuries were reported as a result of the fires, but church officials say generations of history were destroyed when the structures burned down.
The Associated Press contributed to this story
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.