A man from southwestern Montana has been sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for committing a hate crime and firearms offenses. John Russell Howald, aged 46, was convicted in February and received his sentence on Tuesday from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls for a shooting incident that occurred in March 2020.
Howald’s indictment in June 2021 was part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s intensified efforts to combat hate crimes under the leadership of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Prosecutors revealed that Howald targeted a woman, using violent and homophobic slurs, and fired shots at her residence with an AK-style rifle. This act was part of his self-proclaimed “mission” to eradicate the LGBTQ community from a small town. Armed with multiple firearms, including rifles and pistols, and high-capacity magazines, Howald proceeded to walk into the town with the intention of targeting other individuals he perceived as lesbian, queer, or gay.
However, residents who knew Howald and were leaving the church at that time were able to delay him until a sheriff’s deputy arrived. During this encounter, one resident inadvertently recorded Howald expressing his hatred towards the town’s LGBTQ residents, firing additional rounds from the rifle.
Howald then pointed the AK-style rifle at the deputy before fleeing into the nearby hills. Howald was apprehended the following day, and subsequent searches of his vehicle and camper resulted in the discovery of the weapons and ammunition.
U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich for the District of Montana stated, “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.”
He emphasized that such conduct has no place in Montana, and the justice system is committed to holding Howald accountable for his actions and protecting the civil rights of all Montanans, including the LGBTQI+ community, the Independent Record reported.
During the trial, Howald testified that he was experiencing stress and anguish due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent deaths of close relatives. He admitted to drinking alcohol and expressed hope that his actions that day would lead to a law enforcement officer shooting and killing him.
Defense attorney Colin Stephens argued that Howald had peacefully coexisted with the LGBTQ community in Basin for many years and that his client is gay himself. Stephens maintained that Howald’s core identity did not align with the perception of him as a crusading bigot.
Howald is currently serving a 10-year sentence, with some time suspended, in the Montana State Prison for a state charge of criminal endangerment related to the shooting incident. His eight-year sentence for the hate crime conviction will run concurrently with his state sentence, followed by an additional 10 years for the firearms charge.
He received credit for the two years he has already spent in custody. As part of his sentence, Howald had to forfeit five weapons and the seized ammunition. It is worth noting that Howald has a prior conviction from 2006 for felony aggravated animal cruelty, where he pleaded guilty to shooting a chocolate Labrador at a southwestern Montana campground and decapitating the dog with a chainsaw.