A suspect has been identified and taken into police custody in connection to fires set at three historically black churches in Louisiana, officials said.
Federal prosecutors announced the arrest of the unnamed suspect Wednesday night, less than a week after the two most recent church burnings.
"The U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF, and FBI are working with state and local law enforcement and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the victims and those St. Landry Parish residents affected by these despicable acts," U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana David C. Joseph said in a statement.
The suspect taken into custody was identified by a source briefed on the investigation, according to NBC News. NBC News reported the suspect was Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old local man whose father is a sheriff’s deputy.
Matthews' father, Deputy Roy Matthews, turned his son in to authorities, according to CBS News.
Matthews was charged with three counts of simple arson of a religious building. The maximum penalty for each count is 15 years in prison.
Online records show Matthews was being held Thursday in the St. Landry Parish Jail.
There were no injuries in the fires, which were reported at the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26; the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2; and the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4.
The churches were empty at the times of the fires, but worshippers were forced to hold services at other locations due to the significant damage the buildings suffered.
“The spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country,” president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Derrick Johnson, said in a statement earlier this week. “But this is nothing new. For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community.
“As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence,” Johnson continued. “The NAACP stands vigilant to ensure that authorities conduct full investigations.”
Black churches across the South have historically suffered racist attacks, including bombings, gunfire and arson, since the 1950s.
Officials did not immediately specify a motive in the three fires.
Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, the site of the last fire, as well as others connected to the churches targeted, were cautious in how they categorized the incidents.
"I don't know why this happened, and we don't need to jump to conclusions,” Hines told KXAS-TV. “We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.”