By MELINDA DESLATTE and KEVIN McGILL Associated Press
OPELOUSAS, La. (AP) — The suspect in a string of fires that destroyed three Black churches in rural Louisiana is the White son of a sheriff’s deputy whose father helped arrange for his arrest, authorities said Thursday.
Holden Matthews, 21, was jailed without bail on arson charges in connection with the blazes in and around Opelousas, a city of 16,000 where the flame-gutted remains of the buildings evoked memories of civil rights era violence.
Rev. Gerald Toussaint speaks at a press conference on the arrest of a suspect Holden Matthews for the arson of three churches in Opelousas, La.,Thursday, April 11, 2019. AP Photo/Lee Celano
Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning offered no motive for the fires. He and other officials stopped short of calling them hate crimes. Eric Rommal, the agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office, said investigators were still looking into whether the fires were “bias motivated.”
Browning said there were no indications that anyone else was involved and the danger to churches was over.
“This community is safe again,” he told a news conference. “We are extremely, unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes.”
The Rev. Harry Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, which was destroyed, said the arrest put him at ease and let him sleep at night.
“I felt relieved my congregation didn’t have to worry anymore,” said Richard, who was told of the arrest late Wednesday. “I was reassured that law enforcement was on our side, that things were finally coming to an end.”
Investigators used surveillance video, cellphone tracking and a Walmart receipt to help identify Matthews, who was arrested late Wednesday. They moved quickly, arresting him within 12 hours because they were worried that “other crimes were imminent,” Browning said.
The charred remains of a red gas can recovered at one of the churches was sold at Walmart locations, and the company’s investigators found that the same type of gas can was bought March 25 at a store in Opelousas, along with automotive cloths and a lighter.
The debit card used in that purchase belonged to Matthews, according to court documents.
“The purchase time on this receipt is less than three hours before the first church fire was reported,” an affidavit said.
In addition, cellphone tower data showed Matthews was in the area of all three fires.
Surveillance video from businesses and homes near the churches, and on the roads to and from each fire scene, repeatedly showed a vehicle that was consistent with the beige pickup that belonged to Matthews’ father. Matthews apparently drove the truck to buy the gas can and other items, according to the court documents.
St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that the suspect was the son of deputy Roy Matthews, whom he described as an excellent employee who knew nothing of his son’s actions.
The elder Matthews was heartbroken when told his son was a suspect, the sheriff said.
“He broke down,” Guidroz said. “It was hard.” He said the father arranged for the son to leave the house and go to a place where he could be arrested without incident. He did not elaborate.
The younger Matthews was arrested on three counts of arson of a religious building. A conviction could bring up to 15 years in prison on each count, Browning said.
The fires set many people on edge in and around Opelousas, about 140 miles northwest of New Orleans.
An Associated Press reporter was turned away from what was believed to be the home the suspect shared with his parents.
Matthews had a defender in Nygyl Bryyn, a Facebook friend who identified himself as a south Louisiana native, musician, entrepreneur and agent. In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Bryyn described Matthews as a talented, sometimes frustrated musician but not a racist or violent person.
“As far as being a White supremacist? No. Absolutely not,” Bryyn said.
The fires happened over a 10-day period. The first blaze torched the St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26 in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time, and no one was injured.
Denzel Washington, a 23-year-old Black resident of Opelousas, lamented the loss for the congregations that now have to rebuild.
“But what’s the sense in hate? Forgiven. Forgive what he’s done. It’s not going to change nothing,” he said.
McGill reported from New Orleans and Opelousas. Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance in Opelousas, and Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, contributed to this report.
This story has corrected the spelling of ‘Bryyn’ throughout.