(NEW YORK) -- A Louisiana man accused of intentionally setting fires at three historically black churches has been charged with a federal hate crime, authorities said Wednesday.
Holden Matthews, the son of a sheriff’s deputy, allegedly started a string of fires over a 10-day span in St. Landry Parish earlier this year, destroying three churches with predominantly black congregations.
Matthews, 21, was previously charged with multiple counts of arson, but activists had called for harsher penalties, calling the fires a scary reminder of the Ku Klux Klan-style intimidation tactics and bigotry that terrorized the civil rights era.
He is now charged with three counts of intentional damage to religious property, three counts of using fire to commit a felony and hate crime charges that fall under the Church Arson Prevention Act.
“Attacks against an individual or group because of their religious beliefs will not be tolerated in the Western District of Louisiana,” U.S. Attorney David Joseph said in a statement Wednesday. “Churches are vital places of worship and fellowship for our citizens and bind us together as a community. Our freedom to safely congregate in these churches and exercise our religious beliefs must be jealously guarded.”
“Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts,” he added.
The blaze at St. Mary Baptist Church was reported on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church two days later.
Investigators found a gas can at the scene of one of the fires, according to an arrest affidavit. They traced it back to a local Walmart and linked it to Matthews' credit card, according to the affidavit.
The NAACP previously said the fires should be categorized as "domestic terrorism."
"For decades, African American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African American community," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in an April statement. "As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence."
Johnson noted that the fires had occurred within the same time span of another suspicious blaze in Tennessee, where a social justice training center was burned and tagged with anti-Semitic slurs.
"What is happening in Tennessee and Louisiana is domestic terrorism and we must not turn a blind eye to any incident where people are targeted because of the color of their skin and their faith," Johnson said at the time. "The spike in church burnings in the Southern states is a reflection of emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country."
Matthews is pleading not guilty to the state charges. He could face more than 100 years in prison if convicted on the federal charges. He also faces up to three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution for each of the counts, federal authorities said.
A GoFundMe campaign set up to help rebuild the churches had raised more than $2 million as of late Wednesday.
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