Plea change set in African American church fire case

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A suspect set for trial next month in a series of fires at African American churches in Louisiana is now scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing.

Holden Matthews has pleaded not guilty to federal charges arising from the arson fires at south Louisiana churches. However, a court filing Thursday says a plea-change hearing now is set for Feb. 10 in Lafayette.

Court records show that plea negotiations have been going on in the case. Attorneys in the case did not immediately return calls seeking more information.

Three historic African American churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March, in and around the city of Opelousas, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of New Orleans in St. Landry Parish. Matthews' father is a parish sheriff's deputy.

The indictment charges Matthews with three counts of "intentional damage to religious property," which the Department of Justice said is a hate crime under the U.S. Church Arson Prevention Act. He's also charged with three counts of "using fire to commit a felony."

Matthews is white and the churches served black congregations. The indictment, however, does not mention race. It says the fires were set "because of the religious character" of the properties.

Investigators said Matthews had shown interest in "black metal," an extreme subgenre of heavy metal music. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.