GREAT FALLS, Montana (AP) — A southwestern Montana man has been sentenced to 18 years in federal prison after being convicted of a hate crime and firearms charges for threatening a woman with violent, homophobic slurs and shooting at her house with an AK-style rifle as part of a self-described “mission” to rid a small town of its LGBTQ community.
John Russell Howald, 46, was convicted in February and sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls for the March 2020 shooting.
His indictment in June 2021 was part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s increased enforcement of hate crimes under U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“Hate crimes are especially pernicious because they harm targeted individuals and the entire community to which the individual belongs,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clark said in a statement to The Associated Press at the time. “No community should live in fear because of who they are, where they are from, or what they believe, and it is our goal to make that a reality.”
After shooting into the house of a woman who is a lesbian, nearly hitting her, prosecutors said Howald started walking into the town of Basin to target others he perceived to be lesbian, queer and gay, prosecutors said. He was armed with two AK-style rifles, a hunting rifle, two pistols and multiple high-capacity magazines that were taped together to speed reloading, court records said.
Local residents who were leaving church that Sunday and knew Howald were able to stall him long enough for a sheriff’s deputy to respond. One resident inadvertently recorded Howald yelling and firing more rounds with the same rifle while expressing his hatred toward the community’s gay and lesbian residents and his plan to “clean” them from the town of about 270 residents, prosecutors said.
When the deputy arrived, Howald pointed the AK-style rifle at him, nearly starting a shootout. Howald then fled into the hills, court records said.
Officers arrested Howald the next day. The weapons and ammunition were found in searches of his car and camper, prosecutors said.
“Howald fired multiple shots into someone’s home based solely on her sexual orientation and only the heroic and brave actions of residents and law enforcement, as well as some good fortune, prevented a targeted mass shooting,” U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich for the District of Montana said in a statement.
“It is the kind of conduct that has no place in Montana, which is why our office vigorously prosecuted Howald and why the justice system is holding him accountable for his actions,” Laslovich said. “Our office has an unshakable commitment to uphold the rule of law and protect the civil rights of all Montanans, including our LGBTQI+ friends and family members.”
Howald had hoped his planned shooting would inspire similar attacks around the country, Clark said in a statement Wednesday.
During his trial, Howald testified that he was under stress and feeling anguished due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of close relatives, including his grandfather. He had been drinking and said he hoped his actions that day might prompt a law enforcement officer to shoot and kill him, the Independent Record reported.
Defense attorney Colin Stephens told jurors that Howald had peacefully co-existed with the gay and lesbian community in Basin for decades. Howald testified that he is gay.
“At his core, Howald is not a crusading bigot, who is hell bent for leather on wiping lesbians from the Earth,” Stephens said in his sentencing memo.
Stephens said Wednesday that he plans an appeal.
Howald is serving a 10-year sentence, with some time suspended, in the Montana State Prison after being convicted on a state charge of criminal endangerment stemming from the shooting in Basin, according to Montana Department of Corrections records. He remained at the prison in Deer Lodge on Wednesday.
His eight-year sentence for the hate crime conviction will be served at the same time as his state sentence, followed by 10 years for the weapons charge. He was given credit for the two years he has already spent in custody. Howald also had to forfeit five weapons and ammunition seized from his property.
In 2006, Howald was sentenced to two years in prison for felony aggravated animal cruelty, after pleading guilty to shooting a chocolate Labrador at a southwestern Montana campground and decapitating the dog with a chain saw.