Louisiana church arson suspect charged with hate crimes

The man arrested in connection with the burning of three historically black churches in Louisiana was charged with hate crimes on Monday, according to The Associated Press.

Holden Matthews, the son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy, was arrested last week and charged with three counts of arson of a religious building. All three churches were empty when the incidents occurred.

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Matthews, 21, pleaded not guilty on Monday. State District Judge James Doherty set a September trial date and denied bail, agreeing with law enforcement officials who said Matthews was likely to flee the area or commit additional arsons.

"We felt that he was an immediate risk to public safety," Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning said, according to the AP. "In my mind, I felt another fire was imminent."

Browning said during court testimony that new evidence tied Matthews to the crime and that images on his cellphone have him claiming responsibility for the three fires. In addition to the hate crimes charges, Browning said federal officials are considering additional federal hate crime and arson charges against Matthews, according to the AP.

Louisiana hate crime law applies to incidents based on race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.

Matthews’s arson charges have been upgraded to two counts of simple arson of a religious building and one count of aggravated arson of a religious building due to the “immediate danger” to residents of a home 15 feet from the Greater Union Baptist Church, according to The Acadiana Advocate. Siding on the residential structure caught fire as a result of the church blaze, Browning testified.