A Montana man has been sentenced to 18 years in prison after his conviction on federal hate crime and firearm charges related to a “self-described mission to rid the town of Basin of its lesbian, queer and gay community,” officials said.
John Russell Howald was convicted in February for firing an AK-style rifle at the home of a woman who openly identified as a lesbian, the US Department of Justice said in a news release. The woman was inside the home during the March 2020 incident.
Howald was armed with two assault rifles, a hunting rifle, two pistols and multiple high-capacity magazines that were taped together for faster reloading, the release said.
“Hoping he had killed her, Howald set off toward other houses occupied by people who identify as lesbian, queer or gay,” the release said.
Some residents who knew Howald spotted him and stalled him long enough for a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office deputy to respond, prosecutors said.
Howald was recorded “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,” the release said.
Howald pointed his rifle at a responding deputy, “nearly starting a shootout in downtown Basin,” before running into surrounding hills, according to the release.
He was arrested the next day, 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,” prosecutors said.
“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,” ATF Director Steven Dettelbach said in the release.
Howald’s 18-year prison sentence, to be followed by five years of supervised release, was announced during Pride Month and comes as the Human Rights Campaign has declared a national state of emergency for the LGBTQ+ community in the US.
“The multiplying threats facing millions in our community are not just perceived – they are real, tangible and dangerous,” the group’s president, Kelley Robinson, said. “In many cases they are resulting in violence against LGBTQ+ people, forcing families to uproot their lives and flee their homes in search of safer states, and triggering a tidal wave of increased homophobia and transphobia that puts the safety of each and every one of us at risk.”
Howald hoped to inspire similar attacks around the country, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“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,” Clarke said in the release. “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.”