Holden Matthews, 22, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Lafayette to intentionally setting fire to three Baptist churches because of the religious character of those buildings, according to U.S. Attorney David Joseph’s office.

Specifically, Matthews pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act—one count for each church—as well as one count of using fire to commit a federal felony.

The fires, which Matthews set over a ten-day period in March and April of 2019, completely destroyed each of the church buildings. U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Summerhays presided over the hearing. 

“Today, the defendant has taken responsibility for the burning and destruction of three of our churches,” said Joseph. “The freedom to safely congregate and worship in our churches is a fundamental right of all Americans and will be vigorously protected by my office and our law enforcement partners.  I want to thank the ATF, FBI, St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, St. Landry Parish Fire Department, Louisiana State Fire Marshal, Louisiana Attorney General’s Cybercrime Unit, Louisiana State Police, and the Florida State Fire Marshal for their hard work and seamless collaboration on this case.”

Matthews will be sentenced on May 22, 2020. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 70 years in prison.

At the plea hearing, Matthews admitted that, between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to three Baptist churches with predominantly African-American congregations in the Opelousas, Louisiana area. First, on March 26, 2019, Matthews set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana. Next, on April 2, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church, in Opelousas, Louisiana. Then, on April 4, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana. The fires Matthews set destroyed each of the church buildings.

“The Department of Justice will remain unwavering in its protection of the freedom to practice religion without the threat of discrimination or violence,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.

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