Holden Matthews, 21, accused of setting fire to three historically black churches in Louisiana, is now facing upgraded charges, with prosecutors charging him with hate crime counts related to his motive for setting the fire.
According to the Advocate, Matthews, the son of a St. Landry Parish deputy, is now facing two counts of simple arson of a religious building, one count of aggravated arson of a religious building, and the three hate crime counts.
Matthews is accused of committing arson because of the “actual or perceived race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry of the owner, or owners, or occupant or occupants of that property or because of actual or perceived membership or service in, or employment with an organization.”
The aggravated arson charge was an upgraded charge, stemming from the “immediate danger” that residents living near the Greater Union Baptist Church—one of the churches that were burned—were placed in as they slept in their home 15 feet away.
Part of the residence caught fire, according to Lousiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning, and firefighters had to take “extraordinary measures” to prevent the home from going up in flames.
The sleeping occupants of the home were safely evacuated.
During Matthews’ arraignment hearing on Monday, prosecutors shared digital evidence which they say put the 21-year-old at the scene of all three fires, the Advocate notes.
Photos and videos from the churches that were taken from Matthews’ cell phone show the scenes of all three fires as the fires were starting and before emergency responders arrived on the scene.
There were also photos which show that Matthews went back to the scene of the alleged crimes in the following days after the churches were nothing but rubble, Browning said.
In addition, according to Browning, there were also copies of news reports about the fire on Matthews’ cellphone, which he edited to put his name in them, claiming responsibility for the fires.
“He superimposed himself on these news reports claiming responsibility for these fires,” Browning testified.
Investigators also found a Bic lighter and a pack of oil rags in Matthews’ truck. Some of the rags from the pack was missing, with the remains of matching rags found at the scene of the fires, according to Browning.
Matthews, who appeared in court via video conference, pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was denied bail, with District Judge James Doherty saying that the amount of evidence presented and the seriousness of the alleged crimes made him a continued risk.
Matthews’ trial has been scheduled for September, with a pre-trial hearing expected to be held on July 17.