Monday, 24 January 2022

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

FILE – In this April 4, 2019 file photo, firefighters and fire investigators respond to a fire at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, in Opelousas, La. (Leslie Westbrook/The Advocate via AP, File)

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 civil rights terrorism.

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 without incident 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 had a defender in Nygyl Bryyn, a Facebook friend who 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, Brynn described Matthews as a talented, sometimes frustrated musician — upset in recent months after Brynn told him 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,” Bryyn said in a telephone interview, later adding, “I don’t think he did it but if he did it would not be because the churches are black.”

Bryyn, 36, and 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 Bryyn’s 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, Bryyn 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.

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