(Reuters) - The son of a sheriff's deputy was charged with burning down three predominately black churches in southern Louisiana over the past two weeks, officials said on Thursday, saying they acted quickly out of concern he would strike again.
Holden Matthews, 21, who is white and a resident of St. Landry Parish, the county where the fires occurred, was charged with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, each count of which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said.
"Several pieces of evidence, both physical from the scene and technological evidence, have confirmed that Matthews is the suspect," Browning told a news briefing in Opelousas, Louisiana, about 60 miles west of Baton Rouge.
Matthews, the son of Deputy Roy Matthews of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, was taken into custody late Wednesday, about 12 hours after he was identified as a suspect, Browning said.
"We felt that other crimes were imminent," he said. "In an abundance of public safety, we quickly secured warrants and took him into custody."
The three churches destroyed by the fires have mostly black congregants, raising authorities' suspicion that the fires may be racially motivated hate crimes. No federal hate crime charges have been filed against Matthews so far.
While investigators were still exploring motives for the crime, Browning said they learned that Matthews had "a relationship with a type of music called black metal," an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. Black metal has an association with church burnings in other parts of the world, he said.
Officials, including those from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said that the investigation was ongoing.
The fires destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in the community of Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, the seat of the parish, the Louisiana equivalent to a county.
The fires were set between March 26 and April 4.
St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz stressed that he believed his deputy was unaware of Holden Matthews' involvement in the fires.
"Roy Matthews is one of my best friends, a great deputy," Guidroz said.
Authorities had already said they found suspicious "patterns" among fires.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York)
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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 01:05:55 IST