A man has been convicted of federal hate crimes and firearms charges after going on a self-described “mission” to kill all of the LGBTQ+ people in his Montana town.
46-year-old John Russell Howald fired what the Department of Justice (DOJ) said was an “AK-style assault rifle” at the home of a lesbian in his town of Basin on March 22, 2020. The woman was not harmed even though Howald fired multiple rounds while carrying two pistols and three rifles.
The DOJ said that after firing at the woman’s home, Howald continued down the street, determined to kill all the LGBTQ+ people in town.
A nearby church service had let out around the same time and those exiting, including the pastor, tried to talk Howald down. The pastor was unknowingly recording the situation with a device he was using to capture his sermons. On the recording, Howald reportedly states that he hopes he just killed the lesbian and that he plans to get rid of the rest of the town’s LGBTQ+ community. He also fired a weapon multiple times while the people tried to calm him down.
Howald also refused to drop his weapons when a sheriff arrived and ordered him to do so, fleeing the scene on foot while firing again. He was arrested the following day and now faces the possibility of life in prison. Flathead Beacon reported that he is already serving a 10-year sentence on state charges of criminal endangerment for the same crime.
“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,” said Jess Laslovich, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, in a statement. “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.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who works for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said, “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.”
This isn’t the first time Howald has had trouble with the law. Court documents paint him as a violent, sadistic person with a “tribal band with a confederate flag” tattoo on his left arm and a swastika tattoo on his left forearm.
In 2006, he was convicted on charges of animal cruelty, according to information in the Montana Department of Corrections database, after he shot a chocolate Lab at a public campsite.
An article from the time says he “pursued the wounded Lab around the side of a trailer and then into the trees and shot at it a number of times, then came back to the campsite and got a chainsaw and severed the dog’s head.”
“Howald then allegedly drove to a campsite occupied by Mike and Brenda Sullivan of Butte and threw the severed head of their dog at them, saying ‘Here is your f**king dog back,’” the article said. He had to serve 24 months in prison for animal cruelty.
In another incident, Howald threw a beer bottle at a child at a campground in Montana. The kid’s father came to confront him and then turned to walk away, when Howald then allegedly shot his gun at the father without hitting him. The father said Howald was “clearly intoxicated.”