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FBI: Not yet clear if 3 Louisiana church fires were hate crimes

By Clyde Hughes
FBI: Not yet clear if 3 Louisiana church fires were hate crimes
Fire damage is seen at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in St. Landry Parish, La., on April 4. It was the first of three fires in 10 days in the area. Photo courtesy Louisiana State Fire Marshal/Facebook

April 11 (UPI) -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Thursday it's not yet determined whether a man accused of burning three historic black Louisiana churches during a 10-day span will be charged with hate crimes.

New Orleans FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric J. Rommal didn't call the fires hate crimes, but added the investigation is not yet finished. Suspect Holden Matthews, the son of a St. Landry Sheriff's deputy, was arrested Wednesday and charged with three counts of arson of a religious building. Each charge carries a maximum of 15 years in prison, Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. Browning said.

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"Let me be clear, the FBI field office will continue to collaborate and coordinate our efforts with our partners standing here today. These criminal actions will not be tolerated. We will ensure justice is sought for all victims," Rommal told reporters Thursday.

When pressed about the hate crime classification, Rommal said more investigating needs to be done.

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"Obviously, we need to ... go where the leads bring us and where the evidence takes us," he said. "Right now, we are just making sure we gather all of the facts before any declarations are made."

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Browning said Matthews had a relationship with "black metal" music, which he said has a historical connection to church arson.

Vandalizing, bombing and burning historically black churches for decades have attempted to intimidate and terrorize communities in the Deep South. One of the most well-known attacks, a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., killed four African-American girls.

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"[The fires] have been especially painful because they remind us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said at Thursday's news conference.

St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz disputed reports that deputy Roy Matthews turned in his 21-year-old son. Guidroz said the elder Matthews didn't learn of the crimes until investigators informed him Wednesday.

"Holden's father is an employee of mine, a fine man," Guidroz said. "He was shocked and hurt, as any father would be. My heart went out to him [Wednesday] when we notified him to come in and I talked to him and the news was broken to him. He was in terrible shape.

"He knew nothing about his son's activities."

Browning said the fires at the three churches from March 26 to April 4 caused structural damage and were deliberately set. They were St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre and Greater Union and Mount Pleasant Baptist churches in nearby Opelousas. All three had been active for more than 100 years.

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The investigation, which also involves local officials and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has so far indicated Holden Matthews is the only suspect.

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