GREAT FALLS – 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 assault rifle as part of a self-described “mission” to rid a small town of its LGBTQ community.
John Russell Howald of Basin 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 — when Howald was 44 — 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 town intending to target others he perceived to be lesbian, queer and gay. He was armed with two assault 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 assault 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.
Following his conviction, defense attorney Colin Stephens said he planned to file 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 assorted ammunition.
In 2006, Howard 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.
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