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Guilty plea to federal charges in black church burnings

FILE - This file booking image provided by the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal shows Holden Matthews, who was arrested Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana. Matthews is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in federal court, where he faces hate crime charges. (Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP, File)
FILE - This file booking image provided by the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal shows Holden Matthews, who was arrested Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana. Matthews is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in federal court, where he faces hate crime charges. (Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP, File)

LAFAYETTE, La. – The aspiring ‘black metal’ musician who was arrested in a series of fires set at African American churches in Louisiana last spring pleaded guilty Monday to federal and state criminal charges.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a news release that Holden Matthews pleaded guilty to three counts of intentional damage to religious property, a federal hate crime. He also pleaded to one count of using fire to commit a felony. He entered the pleas in federal court in Lafayette. Sentencing on the federal charges is set for May 22.

He later pleaded guilty in state court in St. Landry Parish to six related state charges and sentencing was set for May 26, Assistant District Attorney Don Richard told The Associated Press.

Investigators said Matthews had shown interest in “black metal,” an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal music.

“Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a Black Metal' musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s,” the U.S. Attorney's statement said.

His self-promotion included taking pictures and videos of two of the burning churches and posting them to Facebook, the release said.

Matthews faces a minimum 10-year federal prison sentence, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. The charges carry a maximum total sentence of 70 years — 20 for each of the hate crimes and 10 for the use of fire in a felony.

The federal plea agreement said the St. Landry Parish District Attorney's Office agreed it would not seek a sentence higher than the federal penalties if Matthews pleaded guilty in state court and would ask that the state sentence be served at the same time as the federal one.

Matthews, 21 at the time of his arrest last year, is white and the destruction of the three historic black churches in St. Landry Parish evoked memories of civil rights-era terrorism. But race is not mentioned as a factor in the charges.

The indictment said the fires were set "because of the religious character" of the properties.

Three churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March 2019, in an area roughly 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of New Orleans in St. Landry Parish. Matthews' father is a parish sheriff's deputy.

The first fire was at the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old, with mostly black congregations.

The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.

T here were six state charges: three state hate crime charges plus two counts of simple arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building.

In a statement later Monday, Louisiana's governor deplored the church burnings.

“These unthinkable acts deprived three church communities of not only their places of worship, but their sense of security." Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “Holden Matthews’ actions came from a place of hate and intolerance and the charges he has pled guilty to speak to the serious and sickening nature of his crimes.”