Matthews pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Browning said federal officials are considering filing federal hate crime and arson charges.
An arrest has been made in connection with three fires at historically black churches in a Louisiana parish, according to U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph.
At a news conference Thursday morning, Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning Jr. said 21-year-old Holden Matthews had been arrested. He was booked into the St. Landry Parish Jail and charged with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings. Each charge has a maximum sentence of 15 years. The three fires are related and were intentionally set, Browning said.
Federal authorities are vetting whether hate was a motive of Holden Matthews, who is white.
KATC reported that Holden Matthews is the son of Roy Matthews, a St. Landry Parish deputy. St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz told KATC that Roy Matthews father did not turn his son in, despite earlier reports. Guidroz said the father was "shocked and hurt when we told him."
"A suspect has been identified in connection with the three church burnings in Opelousas, Louisiana, and is in state custody," Joseph said in a statement Wednesday. "The U.S. Attorney's Office, ATF, and FBI are working with state and local law enforcement and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the victims and those St. Landry Parish residents affected by these despicable acts. A special thanks to St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, Louisiana State Fire Marshal, H. 'Butch' Browning Jr., Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry's Cybercrime Unit, the Louisiana State Police, and the Florida State Fire Marshal for working seamlessly with federal law enforcement agents in this investigation."
On March 26, a fire was started at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana. On April 2, there was a fire at Greater Union Baptist Church followed by one at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on April 4. Each church is more than 100 years old.
In this April 4, 2019 file photo, firefighters and fire investigators respond to a fire at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, in Opelousas, La. Authorities have arrested Holden Matthews, 21, in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana.
Credit: Leslie Westbrook
Credit: Leslie Westbrook
The Associated Press reported that the churches were empty at the time of the fires and there were no injuries. Authorities are working to determine if the fires were intentionally set and motivated by racism or extremism, NBC News reported. In the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, church fires were routinely used to intimidate the black community.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise funds for the rebuilding of the three churches. It has a goal of $1.8 million.
Authorities said there was a fourth fire at a predominately white church in another parish, but it doesn't appear to be connected to the three fires, according to NBC News.