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Heavily armed man who wanted to ‘clean his town’ of LGBTQI+ residents sentenced

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A Montana man who shot into the residence of a lesbian woman and attempted to shoot others who he perceived to be lesbian, queer and gay, was sentenced to 18 years in prison followed by five years of supervised release.

Motivated by hate and heavily armed, John Russell Howald, of Basin, Mont., was convicted by a federal jury Feb. 17 of attempting to kill and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. According to court records, Howald fired an AK-style rifle at the residence of a woman who he identified as lesbian. She was home at the time. He then walked into town intent of ridding the town of LGBTQI+ residents.

On March 22, 2020, Howald went on a self-described 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. Howald then set off toward other houses occupied by people who identify as lesbian, queer or gay, according to court documents.

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.

Howald was witnessed yelling and firing more rounds expressing his determination to “clean” gay and lesbian residents from his town.

When the deputy arrived, Howald pointed the AK-style rifle at the officer, nearly starting a shootout in the downtown area. Howald then fled into the hills, firing at least one round as he went.

Law enforcement officers found and arrested Howald the next day. He was armed with a loaded pistol and a knife. Officers also found an AR-style rifle and a revolver in Howald’s car. During a search of his camper, officers found an AK-style rifle, a hunting rifle, and ammunition.

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,” said Clarke. “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.”

U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said crimes of this nature have no place in Montana.

“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 Laslovich. “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.”

Acting Special Agent in Charge Cheyvoryea Gibson of the FBI Salt Lake City field office said it’s an unfortunate reality that bigotry and hate exist in our communities.

“As a diverse nation, we will not tolerate violence motivated by such bias,” said Gibson. “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.”

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.