By Peter Szekely
(Reuters) - The son of a sheriff's deputy was charged with burning down three predominately black churches in southern Louisiana over the past two weeks, officials said on Thursday, saying they acted quickly out of concern he would strike again.
Holden Matthews, 21, a white resident of St. Landry Parish, the county where the fires occurred, was charged with three counts of simple arson on religious buildings, each count of which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said.
"We are extremely, unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes on these three churches,” Browning told a news briefing in Opelousas, Louisiana, about 60 miles (97 km) west of Baton Rouge.
Matthews, the son of Deputy Roy Matthews of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, was taken into custody late Wednesday, about 12 hours after he was identified as a suspect, Browning said.
"We felt that other crimes were imminent," he said. "In an abundance of public safety, we quickly secured warrants and took him into custody."
The three churches destroyed by the fires have mostly black congregations, raising authorities' suspicion that the fires may be racially motivated hate crimes. No federal hate crime charges have been filed against Matthews so far.
Noting the history of black church burnings in the South, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the current episode was "especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear."
Edwards said the crimes appeared to be unrelated to the March 31 burning of a predominantly white church in another parish.
While investigators were still exploring motives, Browning said that Matthews had "a relationship with a type of music called black metal," an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. Black metal has an association with church burnings in other parts of the world, he said.
Officials, including those from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the investigation was ongoing.
The fires set between March 26 and April 4 destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas.
St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said he believed his deputy was unaware of Holden Matthews' involvement in the fires.
"Roy Matthews is one of my best friends, a great deputy," Guidroz said.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)