ST. LANDRY PARISH, Louisiana -- One person has been arrested in connection with the fires at three historically black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, multiple media sources have reported.
KATC-TV, citing sources, identified the suspect as Holden Matthews, 21. He is the son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff's deputy, the TV station reports.
There will be a news conference at 10 a.m. Thursday, according to the State Fire Marshal's Office. Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to attend, along with H. “Butch” Browning, the fire marshal; Dana Nichols, of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Eric J. Rommal, special agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI field office; and St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz.
The three churches burned to the ground in a 10-day span.
The first church destroyed was St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26, then Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2, followed by Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4.
Browning deemed the fires “suspicious” in a joint press conference April 4 after investigators identified several patterns possibly connecting the fires, including physical evidence.
Each of the churches have been active in the community for over 100 years, the pastors said, and the church buildings were located on rural highways. The fires occurred in the early morning hours and the structures were reduced almost entirely to rubble.
Families have worshipped in the three churches for generations. Congregants at several churches said they’ve never worshipped anywhere else, and they’re struggling to grasp that a source of solace and constancy in their lives is gone.
Law enforcement agencies have thrown considerable manpower behind the investigation of the fires.
Browning told worshippers of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church at a service Sunday that roughly 200 people were working on the fire investigation, including "literally all of the state fire marshal's resources" and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The FBI is also involved in the investigation. Local law enforcement was also working with area churches to beef up security until a perpetrator was captured, in case other churches could be targeted.
Guidroz said he was approving overtime for deputies, adding patrols to areas near other churches and working with pastors to ensure the community was supported.
“Law enforcement is on the job and we’re doing everything we can collectively to solve these crimes,” he said. “Whatever it takes, we’re going to do it.”
Investigators would not confirm if race was a motive in the burnings, but the predominantly black congregations had people flashing back to historical targeting of African-American churches. Thirty predominantly African-American churches were burned across the United States in 1996, including three near Baton Rouge.
Browning could not say last week if race was a motive in the burnings but said the coordination between federal and state law enforcement will allow for appropriate charges, including possibly hate crime charges, to be addressed.
The Rev. Harry Richard, of Greater Union Baptist Church, said in a phone call Wednesday that even if race was the cause of the blaze that destroyed his church, he wanted to embrace the person or persons responsible with compassion.
“I want whoever did it to know we love them. Sometimes I understand people who are hurting hurt people, but we love them,” he said.
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