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'Evil Acts': Son Of Sheriff's Deputy Is Chief Suspect In Louisiana Church Arson Cases

Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Bureau investigators work on Wednesday near the ruins of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, one of three historically black churches that recently burned down in Louisiana.
Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Bureau investigators work on Wednesday near the ruins of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, one of three historically black churches that recently burned down in Louisiana.
Gerald Herbert/AP

Updated at 11:40 a.m.

Police have arrested the son of a Louisiana sheriff's deputy as a suspect in connection with three historically black churches that were torched in recent days.

Officials identified the suspect as Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old white male from St. Landry Parish, a small community about an hour west of Baton Rouge.

"I don't know what this young man's motive was, I don't know what was in his heart," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference Thursday morning. "But I can say it cannot be justified or rationalized. These were evil acts."

Matthews was charged with state crimes on three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said. Each charge has a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Browning said both physical evidence from the crime scenes and technological evidence confirmed Matthews as a suspect. He said authorities are still vetting several motives but an imminent threat to public safety prompted law enforcement to quickly secure warrants to bring Matthews into custody.

The suspect was linked to "black metal," Browning said, referring to the music genre that's previously been associated with church arson attacks in Norway and elsewhere.

The historically black churches were burned down within a span of 10 days in St. Landry Parish. The first fire tore through St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26. The second burned at the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2, and the third broke out at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4.

All three churches were built in rural areas and have served generations of predominantly black families. No one was reported injured in the fires, which broke out when the buildings were empty.

The time and proximity of the flames led people to wonder whether the fires were linked. Pastors prayed that the arson was not a racist act, part of a violent legacy for black churches in the South that were attacked since the civil rights movement.

Florence Milburn, a member of the Greater Union Baptist Church, told NPR that she immediately went to her church after receiving news of the fire.

"My husband and I drove over there along with our other family members, and along with our church family, we were on site and we watched our church burn to the ground," she said.

U.S. Attorney David Joseph announced Wednesday that a suspect was identified and in state custody. He called the fires "despicable acts."

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