Prosecutors in Louisiana have charged the man accused of setting fire to three black churches with hate crimes.
Holden Matthews, who was arrested last week, pleaded not guilty to three hate crime charges on Monday, along with several counts of arson involving a religious building, according to the St. Landry Parish District Attorney’s Office.
The three St. Landry Parish churches, which were all empty at the time, burned to the ground within 10 days of one another, with the first fire occurring on March 26. About 77% of residents in Opelousas, Louisiana, the town the burned churches were in or near, are black.
The additional hate crime charges confirm that authorities believe that Matthews targeted the churches because of the race of their attendees, District Attorney Earl Taylor explained to BuzzFeed News, a potential motive that investigators had held off on suggesting until Monday.
Matthews, 21, could face about 65 years in prison, Taylor said.
The suspect is the son of a sheriff's deputy and has no history of arrests or violence, authorities say. According to CBS, Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning testified in court that Matthews documented the fires on his phone, even superimposing himself on copies of news reports to claim responsibility for the damage.
At a news conference last week, the state marshal's office said investigators believe black metal music may have influenced his actions. Matthews was passionate about the genre, specifically Norwegian black metal music, and was also very active in pagan Facebook groups.
Using several aliases, Matthews often commented about Norse mythology and spoke out against organized religion. Last year, he talked about converting from Catholicism to paganism. In one post, he complained about Baptists, calling them "a bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was mine."
At the hearing, Browning referenced Matthews' interest in the movie Lords of Chaos, a horror biopic about the beginning of the Norwegian black metal scene in the 1990s in which one of the lead musicians set several churches on fire.
However, one of his good friends, Nygyl Brynn Blackwolf, insisted that Matthews is not racist or was lashing out against black people.
"He was never aggressive, mean, racist, or anything like that," Blackwolf told BuzzFeed News. "He was just a kid who wanted to make music."
At the request of Taylor, a judge ordered Matthews held without bond on Monday.