A 22-year-old man pleaded guilty on Monday to intentionally setting fires to three predominantly black Baptist churches in Louisiana over a 10-day period last year — crimes that set a rural Cajun community on edge.
The man, Holden Matthews, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, pleaded guilty to four federal criminal counts, including three counts of intentional damage to religious property, which is a federal hate crime, and one count of using fire to commit a felony, according to a statement issued by the United States Department of Justice. Later on Monday, he pleaded guilty to six state charges, including aggravated arson of a religious building and three hate crime counts.
He will face 10 to 70 years in prison when he is sentenced on the federal charges on May 22. He will be sentenced on the state charges four days later.
During his plea hearing in United States District Court in Lafayette, La., Mr. Matthews said he had targeted these buildings because of their religious character, according to the statement. Mr. Matthews, an aficionado of black metal, a subgenre of heavy metal, said he was copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s in an attempt to elevate his status among the black metal community, whose most extreme practitioners engaged in church burning, vandalism and killings.
Mr. Matthews was a member of a black metal band called Vodka Vultures. He also admitted to posting photographs and videos of the churches burning on Facebook as a promotional tactic.
Mr. Matthews set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, La., on March 26, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, also in Opelousas, on April 4.
All the fires took place in the middle of the night and did not injure anyone. Mr. Matthews was arrested about two weeks after the first fire.
Though race was not mentioned as a factor in the charges, the three fires destroyed churches that had existed for more than a century and had been the spiritual homes of generations of black families, evoking the long history of racist crimes committed in the Jim Crow South. Since the 1950s, black churches across the South have been targets of arson, bombings and armed assault.
Dustin Charles Talbot, Mr. Matthews’s lawyer, said that Mr. Matthews had the social and mental development of an adolescent, and that his actions were not motivated by the racial makeup of the congregations.
“Holden now fully understands the seriousness and gravity of his actions and is deeply remorseful for what he has done and the pain he has caused the congregations of these churches,” Mr. Talbot said.
In a statement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People described Mr. Matthews’s actions as “domestic terrorism” and urged Congress to take concrete steps in combating hate crimes against communities of color.
“Churches are incredibly influential in Black culture and serve as a safe space for convening,” the association said. “All Americans deserve to feel safe in their churches, schools and homes.”
David C. Joseph, the United States attorney for Louisiana’s Western District, said in the statement: “Today, the defendant has taken responsibility for the burning and destruction of three of our churches. The freedom to safely congregate and worship in our churches is a fundamental right of all Americans and will be vigorously protected by my office and our law enforcement partners.”
A crowdfunding campaign for the fire-ravaged churches received more than $2 million after it was widely shared on social media after the arsons. Many users noted that millions of euros were being pledged to rebuild the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris after it suffered a calamitous fire, but the small churches in Louisiana were still struggling.