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Man convicted of hate crime after violently trying 'to get rid of lesbians and queers' in small Montana town

Screenshot of Montana Department of Corrections website

A Montana man faces life in prison after he was convicted of a hate crime and a weapons charge in connection to a violent incident which targeted members of "the LGBTQ community," a statement from the Department of Justice said.

On Friday, a federal jury convicted 46-year-old John Russell Howald of hate crime acts and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence after an incident which occurred in March 2020. According to the DOJ report, on March 22, 2020, Howald armed himself with three rifles and two pistols and fired several rounds from "an AK-style assault rifle" at the residence of a self-identified lesbian in his hometown of Basin, Montana, about 30 miles northeast of Butte.

"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 U.S. attorney Jess Laslovich for the District of Montana. The victim, whose name has not been released, was not injured in the shooting, though at least one bullet penetrated the home itself.

After he shot up the woman's residence, Howald then began walking through the town, which is home to fewer than 200 people, and headed toward the homes of others "who identify and are known locally as gay or lesbian," the statement said. While on his way, members of a local church who had just left a recent service recognized Howald, spotted his weapons, and attempted to dissuade him from further attacks.

The church pastor also happened to be wearing a recording device. The device, normally used to record sermons, was still running when the pastor began speaking with Howald. The device reportedly captured Howald admitting that he may have just shot "a lesbian," that he hoped he had, and that he wanted "to get rid of lesbians and queers in Basin." The device also reportedly recorded Howald firing several rounds before asking the pastor to "walk away."

Finally, Howald fired a round at a deputy, who had responded to a 911 call, and fled the scene. He was arrested the following day and was found with several firearms and at least one knife on or near his person.

Now that he has been convicted, Howald faces a possible life sentence for the hate crime offense, at least 10 years for the weapons offense — which he must serve consecutively to the hate crime sentence — as well as a $250,000 fine.

"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."

In 2006, Howald was convicted of shooting a chocolate Labrador dog several times and then beheading it at a public campsite. He served two years in prison for cruelty to animals in connection to that incident.

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