Shock at arrest of deputy's son in black church fires

Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning speaks as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards looks on during 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)
St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz rubs his face as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards looks on following 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)
FILE - 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 a person in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana, a federal prosecutor said. The suspect was in state custody, U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph announced late Wednesday, April 10 in a news release labeling the fires “despicable acts.” (Leslie Westbrook/The Advocate via AP, File)
CORRECTS ARREST DATE TO WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10 - This booking image released by the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal shows Holden Matthews, 21, who was arrested Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana. Matthews faces three counts of simple arson of a religious building on the state charges. Federal investigators also were looking into whether hate motivated the fires. (Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP)

OPELOUSAS, La. — Authorities said he had no known criminal record. A friend described him as an introverted animal lover who showed no animosity toward any race, and a talented, if frustrated heavy metal guitar player and singer. A fellow musician called him "a really sweet guy."

But Holden Matthews, the white, 21-year-old son of a Louisiana sheriff's deputy, was behind bars Thursday, accused of torching three century-old African American churches during a 10-day period in and around Opelousas. The city of 16,000 people was set on edge by blazes, which evoked memories of terrorist acts during the civil rights movement.

A fragment of a charred gasoline can, surveillance video that captured what appeared to be his parents' truck in key locations, debit card records and cellphone tracking techniques led authorities to arrest Matthews on Wednesday evening. But though the arrest affidavit showed how they linked Matthews to the crime, federal, state and local authorities who gathered for a Thursday news conference at the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office weren't ready to discuss motive.

Eric Rommal, the agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office, said investigators were still looking into whether the fires were "bias motivated."

Matthews, who is scheduled for a Monday morning bond hearing, had a defender in Nygyl Bryyn Blackwolf, listed as Nygyl Bryyn among Matthews' Facebook friends. Blackwolf identified himself as a south Louisiana native, musician, entrepreneur and owner of the independent record label Power Back Productions. In a telephone interview from Los Angeles on Thursday, he described Matthews as a talented, sometimes frustrated musician — upset in recent months after he was told he needed to improve the quality of his recordings — but not a racist or violent person.

"If he's making a statement, it's against religion and establishment only, not against race," he said, later adding, "I don't think he did it, but if he did, it would not be because the churches are black."

Blackwolf, 36, a native of Opelousas, said he met Matthews after moving out of state when Matthews, who played guitar and sang, answered an online ad while seeking a recording deal with Power Back Productions. They worked together and met face-to-face over the years. Matthews was at odds with his parents over his music aspirations, Blackwolf said, but never showed signs of violence or racism.

Matthews had shown interest in "black metal," an extreme subgenre of heavy metal, state Fire Marshall Butch Browning said. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.

A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Matthews showed him with the words "black metal" spray-painted on a wall behind him. He also posted a comment on a movie's portrayal of black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a far-right figure convicted of manslaughter and arson at three churches.

Black metal lyrics often espouse Satanism and paganism, and a few bands feature neo-Nazi beliefs.

Blackwolf, however, insisted that the black metal genre is not characterized by racism. He acknowledged that some, but not all, involved in black-metal music may have expressed racism, but he said it's not typical of the genre.

"We've got friends of all races," he said.

Josh Cook, 27, a musician from Hammond, Louisiana, said he heard about the church burnings before Matthews' arrest and had wondered if they could have been inspired by the church fires in Norway. He said there is an "elitist" element of the black metal music scene that is fascinated with those church burnings.

But he echoed Blackwolf's description of Matthews, saying the suspect was friends with a very diverse group of people and a "good dude" who never displayed signs of racism.

"He is actually a really sweet guy, which is why I was so surprised to hear what happened," Cook said. "He was not a jerk. He was very tolerant. He was very loving and very encouraging."

Matthews' father, Roy Matthews, "broke down" when told his son was the suspect, said Sheriff Bobby Guidroz.

Guidroz said the father aided authorities by arranging 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 (225 kilometers) northwest of New Orleans.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said the fires were "especially painful" because they were a reminder "of a very dark past of intimidation and fear."

"This is a reflection of one depraved individual," he added. "It is not a reflection on the state of Louisiana."

An Associated Press reporter was turned away Thursday from what was believed to be the home the suspect shared with his parents.

Matthews' arrest came a little more than two weeks after the first blaze at 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.

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."

___

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.

Must Read

2 Fox News execs named co-presidents, will report...

Aug 12, 2016

Rupert Murdoch moves to set up a new management structure at Fox News following Roger Ailes'...

'Suicide Squad' loses some luster in 2nd...

Aug 14, 2016

"Suicide Squad" isn't looking as bright in weekend two, dropping an estimated 67 percent

Court rejects Cosby's attempt to reseal testimony...

Aug 15, 2016

A federal appeals court has rejected Bill Cosby's effort to reseal his deposition testimony about...

Brian Williams to anchor late campaign newscast...

Aug 16, 2016

MSNBC's Brian Williams is getting a regular time slot, at least for a couple of months

UK critics fall for 'Groundhog Day' musical, over...

Aug 17, 2016

A musical based on "Groundhog Day," the 1993 movie about a jaded weatherman forced to live the same...

Sign up now!

About Us

In The Headline sought to bring professionalism back into journalism, bringing you only the most exclusive and the most impactive news from all over the globe.

Contact us: sales[at]intheheadline.com