Suspect arrested in fires at three black churches in Louisiana

(Reuters) – Police have arrested a man suspected of setting fire to three predominately black churches in a southern Louisiana parish, a federal prosecutor said on Wednesday.

“A suspect has been identified in connection with three church burnings in Opelousas, Louisiana, and is in state custody,” David Joseph, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, said in a statement.

The suspect’s name was not released.

The sheriff’s office in St. Landry Parish where the fires occurred declined to comment and referred questions to the fire marshal’s office.

Ashley Rodrigue, spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said there will be an announcement regarding the case at a press conference on Thursday attended by Governor John Bel Edwards and law enforcement officials.

Authorities said this month they found suspicious “patterns” among fires that burned down three churches between March 26 and April 4 in the parish, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of New Orleans.

The fires destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in the community of Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, the seat of the parish, the Louisiana equivalent to a county.

All the churches have mostly black congregants, raising authorities’ suspicion that the fires could have been racially motivated hate crimes.

(Reporting by Rich McKay, additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Darren Schuettler)