Arsonist of Three Black Louisiana Churches Sentenced to 25 Years in Prison

A sign outside Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas The church was destroyed by fire in April 2019 by Holden Matthews who was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison Monday. Photo by Frances Madeson.

The White Landry Parish man who  torched three Black churches in April 2019 to curry favor with “black metal” music fans has been sentenced to 25 years in federal prison after multiple members of the incinerated churches described the suffering he had caused them.

Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas who works as a bricklayer, told U.S. District Judge Robert R. Summerhays on Monday he had been “mending and fixing on that building” for 30 years. “The legacy that I wanted to leave behind was you don’t need a lot of money, resources, or even a big congregation to have a church,” Hines said. “Now I can’t point to the steps and say I built those by myself. I wanted my work to be an example to all people. That’s all burned down.”

In addition to giving Holden Matthews, 22, a lengthy prison sentence, Summerhays in the Lafayette federal court also ordered the defendant to pay almost $2.7 million combined to Mt. Pleasant, to Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas and to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre.

Addressing the members of the three churches, Matthews said, “There’s not a word in the English language to say how sorry I am.” He said he wished he had a chance to rebuild the churches “with my own hands, brick by brick.” Matthews pleaded guilty in February to state and federal charges related to the arsons. He has not been sentenced in state court, but whatever sentence he receives is expected to run concurrently with his federal sentence.

Matthews’ attorney argued that the defendant had multiple untreated mental illnesses, including depression, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. Matthews’ parents, the defense argued, responded to his pleas for help with the advice “to pray it out.”

Mary Lou Kelley, a clinical psychologist and LSU professor who evaluated Holden, told a prosecutor that words such as “psychopath” and “sociopath” were not appropriate to describe the defendant.  Kelley said as well-intentioned as his mother had been by suggesting he pray, if her son had received therapeutic treatments as a middle schooler when his emotional troubles began, or even as an adolescent, “we would not be here.” 

The defendant’s mother collapsed on the first day of the two-day sentencing hearing and wept throughout the proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Luke Walker had asked the court to bring “the full weight of the United States to bear” and sentence Matthews to 30 years. Walker said that sentence would show anyone else contemplating such acts that “the consequences will be dire.” Matthews’ attorney Dustin Talbot, citing his client’s expressed remorse, asked for a 10-year sentence, the minimum for destroying religious property, plus a day for using fire to commit a federal felony. 

Matthews appeared to accept the news of his sentence with equanimity, having previously told his father a Landry Parish Sheriff’s deputy, that he preferred federal prison over an extended stay in the Landry Parish jail because it would be an opportunity “to take classes and make something of himself.” He was remanded into Federal Bureau of Prisons custody where he will be credited for 18 months of time already served in the parish jail. 

Matthews had previously testified that he had selected the churches because they were constructed from wood and would burn more easily. He also chose them, he said, because of their remote locations. He’d posted videos and photos to his Facebook page to gain the attention of fellow “black metal” fans who he expected to connect his crimes to church burnings in Norway. According to an April 11, 2020, article in Rolling Stone a “former bassist for the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, [Varg] Vikernes boasted about burning churches in Norway with other black metal musicians called the ‘black circle,’ which he attributed to his desire to take ‘revenge’ on Christians and bring Norway back to its pagan roots.” Two days after he burned the first church, Matthews posted a song to Youtube called Pagan Carnage, Rehearsals from Hell. 

“It is what it is, we all have to pay for our sins,” the Rev. Gerald Toussaint, the pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, said after Matthews was sentenced. “I wish we could keep all of our young men from getting into all kinds of stuff, get them the right help they need before they do something like this,” he said. “It’s painful for the parents,” the pastor said. “I know that. Now they’ll have to see him through bars for a long time.”

Toussaint said the first sermon he preached after his church was destroyed cited Romans 8:28:  “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

The seven victim-impact statements presented to the Judge Summerhays’ court came from members of the three congregations who described not just the loss of the buildings but also church records, photos and memorabilia that had documented generations of bonds knit in ceremony, service and worship.

Toussaint met with the  contractors who are building the congregation’s new church after the hearing on Monday. Construction is scheduled to be completed before the beginning of 2021.

Pointing to the new church in progress Toussaint said, “We can’t never get back what we had, but we’re surely going to have something we can be thankful for.”

This article first appeared on the Illuminator.

Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village (Carol MRP Co., New York, 2007), and a social justice blogger at Written Word, Spoken Word.