A federal jury has convicted a Montana man, John Russell Howald, of hate and firearms crimes after he fired an AK-style assault rifle at a local lesbian’s home.
The four-day trial began on February 14 and concluded with the jury finding Howald guilty of hate crime acts and discharge of firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence as charged in a superseding indictment.
The Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said, “This defendant is being held accountable for attempting to violently eliminate the entire LGBTQ community in a small Montana town. This hate crime and violent campaign targeting the LGBTQ community is a reminder of the epidemic of hate violence targeting people based on their sexual orientation. All people have the right to feel safe in their homes and communities, regardless of who they love. The Civil Rights Division will continue to work with our federal, state, and local partners to safeguard the civil rights of LGBTQ people affected by hate violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure justice for victims of bias-motivated crimes.”
According to court documents, Howald specifically saught to harm the LGBTQ+ community. When Howald fired the shots, he was on a self-described mission to “rid the town of Basin of its lesbian and gay community.” He fired several rounds at the unnamed lesbian’s fence and home. She was home at the time of the attack but was luckily unharmed.
“The victim in this case was targeted by the defendant for no other reason than her sexual orientation when he fired bullets at her home while she was inside of it. There will be zero tolerance by our office in prosecuting those who commit hate crimes against our fellow Montanans, as no one should have to live in fear of potentially deadly violence simply because of whom they love,” said U.S. Attorney Jess Laslovich for the District of Montana. “I am pleased the jury agreed with us and I sincerely thank Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan R. Plaut and Trial Attorney Eric N. Peffley, Criminal Section, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, along with the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Jefferson County’s Sheriff’s Office for investigating and prosecuting this case.”
After firing at the victim’s house, Howald directed his rampage toward other local houses occupied by out queer people in the community. While he was on the way to continue his hate crimes, a pastor saw him walking down the street and approached him in attempt to talk him down. The pastor had unknowingly left a recording device on that he used for his sermons, and captured 10 minutes of Howard’s statements saying that “he might have killed a lesbian and that he hoped he had, and that he was going to get rid of lesbians and queers in Basin.” The recording also captured Howald firing off several more rounds.
Once police arrived to the scene, Howald refused to put down his weapon, pointed a rifle at a deputy, then fled on foot, firing another shot as he ran. He was arrested the next day.
“Hate crimes are especially devastating because a vicious act against one person is an attack on an entire community,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Cheyvoryea Gibson of the FBI Salt Lake City Field Office. “I want to reassure Montana citizens the FBI is committed to defending and protecting the rights of all persons and encourage the public to report hate crimes to the FBI and local law enforcement.”
Howald faces a maximum of life imprisonment. Sentencing is scheduled for June 15.
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