WASHINGTON -- A Montana man was sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Brian M. Morris to 18 years in prison followed by five years of supervised release for shooting into a residence and attempting to shoot others with the intent of ridding a town of LGBTQI+ residents.
John Russell Howald, of Basin, was convicted by a federal jury on Feb. 17 of a hate crime involving an attempt to kill and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence for firing an AK-style rifle at the residence of a woman who was known within the town as lesbian and was home at the time, and then walking further into town intending to target others he perceived to be lesbian, queer, and gay. The trial lasted four days.
“This defendant is being held accountable for his horrific attempted mass shooting against the LGBTQI+ community in a Montana town,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Howald set out to rid the town of all LGBTQI+ members by killing them. He shot into the home of a lesbian resident, nearly killing her, with the hope of inspiring similar attacks around the country. The Justice Department will continue to vigorously defend the rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, to be free from hate-fueled violence. This Pride Month, we affirm our commitment to using the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act to hold perpetrators of hate-fueled violence targeting the LGBTQI+ community accountable.”
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich for the District of Montana. “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. 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.”
“Motivated by hatred of the LGBTQI+ community and armed with multiple firearms and high-capacity magazines, this defendant sought to intimidate - even terrorize – an entire community by shooting into the victim’s home trying to kill her for no reason other than her sexual orientation, this defendant did something distinctly un-American by depriving her of her sense of safety, freedom and privacy all at once,” said ATF Director Steven Dettelbach. “This 18-year sentence reflects the appalling nature of Howald’s actions. I want to commend the ATF Helena Field Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their extraordinary work ensuring justice, not only for the victim, but for the entire LGBTQI+ community.”
“The unfortunate reality is bigotry and hate exist in our communities. Still, as a diverse nation, we will not tolerate violence motivated by such bias,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Cheyvoryea Gibson of the FBI Salt Lake City Field Office. “The harm and trauma experienced by the victim, her family, and the entire community may be irreparable, but rest assured, the FBI is committed to protecting the civil rights of all.”
According to court documents, on March 22, 2020, Howald went on a self-described mission to rid the town of Basin of its lesbian, queer and gay community. Howald was armed with two assault rifles, a hunting rifle, two pistols and multiple high-capacity magazines that were taped together to speed reloading. Howald walked to the first victim’s residence and fired multiple rounds from an AK-style rifle into her property and home, all because of his belief regarding her sexual orientation. Hoping he had killed her, Howald set off toward other houses occupied by people who identify as lesbian, queer or gay.
Local residents, who knew Howald and happened to be leaving church, stalled him long enough for a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office deputy to respond and inadvertently recorded Howald yelling and firing more rounds with the same rifle, expressing his hatred toward the community’s gay and lesbian residents and his determination to “clean” them from his town. When the deputy arrived, Howald pointed the AK-style rifle at the officer, nearly starting a shootout in downtown Basin, and then fled into the hills, firing at least one round as he went. Law enforcement arrested Howald the next day and found him armed with a loaded pistol and a knife. In Howald’s car, officers found an AR-style rifle and a revolver. During a search of Howald’s camper, officers found an AK-style rifle, a hunting rifle, and ammunition.
Assistant Attorney General Clarke, U.S. Attorney Laslovich, Special Agent in Charge Gibson and ATF Director Dettelbach made the announcement.
The FBI, ATF and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan R. Plaut for the District of Montana and Trial Attorney Eric N. Peffley of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section prosecuted the case.