Donations for the burned churches increased in the wake of the fire at Paris’ Notre Dame after an online crowdfunding campaign.
OPELOUSAS, La. — The white man suspected in the burnings of three African American churches in Louisiana is now facing hate crime charges in the arson cases.
Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a sheriff’s deputy, entered his not guilty plea via video conference from the St. Landry Parish jail on Monday. The judge set a September trial date.
Matthews, who had no previous criminal record, was arrested Wednesday on three charges of arson of a religious building. Prosecutors filed documents Monday adding three more charges, accusing Matthews of violating Louisiana’s hate crime law, confirming that they believe the fires were racially motivated, a link authorities had previously stopped short of making.
Browning said federal officials also are considering filing additional federal hate crime and arson charges against Matthews.
In denying bail, state District Judge James Doherty sided with law enforcement officials who said they worried Matthews would try to flee the area or set more fires.
“We felt that he was an immediate risk to public safety,” said Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning. “In my mind, I felt another fire was imminent.”
Testifying in court, Browning outlined a litany of evidence, including new details of the investigation, that he said tied Matthews to the torching of the three black churches over 10 days.
The fire marshal described cellphone records placing Matthews at the fire locations, and he said images on the phone showed all three churches burning before law enforcement arrived and showed Matthews “claiming responsibility” for the fires.
Matthews, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, never spoke to the court during the hearing, letting his court-appointed lawyer enter the not guilty plea for him. His parents watched their son’s appearance on video conference from the courtroom, his dad repeatedly wringing his hands and, at one point, leaving the room in tears.
The fires, all started with gasoline, occurred in and around Opelousas, about 60 miles west of Louisiana’s capital city of Baton Rouge.
A crowdfunding campaign for the three gutted churches was climbing Tuesday after social media posts urging the public not to forget the plight of the small houses of worship as the eyes of the world were on the fire-ravaged Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
“As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also sent some love to our neighbors in Louisiana,” a Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton read.
Freelance journalist Yashar Ali, with 394,000 followers, struck a similar tone, tweeting that the Notre Dame restoration “will be well funded” and urging support for the Louisiana churches.
“It’s a blessing, truly a blessing,” the Rev. Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, said of the fundraising campaign in a telephone interview Tuesday night. The three churches are members of the association.
The campaign surpassed $900,000 Tuesday evening, with contributions ranging from $5 to thousands of dollars.
“It’s all working out for the greater good,” Jack said, when asked about the connection being made to the Notre Dame fire.