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

A Montana man faces life in prison after being convicted of a hate crime and a weapons charge in connection with a violent incident against members of “the LGBTQ community,” a Justice Department statement said .

On Friday, a federal jury convicted John Russell Howald, 46, of hate crimes and of discharging a firearm during and in connection with a crime of violence following an incident in March 2020. According to the DOJ report, on March 22, 2020, Howald armed himself with three rifles and two handguns and fired several rounds of ammunition from “an AK-style assault rifle” at the residence of a self-identified lesbian in the his hometown of Basin, Montana, about 30 miles northeast of Butte.

“The victim in this case was targeted by the defendant for no reason other than her sexual orientation when he fired bullets into her home while she was inside,” said U.S. District Attorney Jess Laslovich from Montana. The victim, whose name has not been released, was not injured in the shooting, although at least one bullet entered the home itself.

After he shot up the woman’s residence, Howald began walking around the town, which is home to fewer than 200 people, heading to the homes of others “who identify and are known locally as gay or lesbian,” says the statement. On his way, members of a local church who had just left a recent service recognized Howald, spotted his weapons and tried to dissuade him from further attacks.

The pastor of the church also carried a recording device. The device, normally used to record sermons, was still working when the pastor started talking to Howald. The device captured Howald admitting that he may have just shot “a lesbian,” which he hoped he had, and that he wanted to “get rid of lesbians and queers in Basin.” The device also recorded Howald firing several rounds before telling the pastor to “get away.”

Howald eventually shot an officer, who had responded to a 911 call, and fled the scene. He was arrested the next day and 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 on the hate crime charge, at least 10 years on the weapons charge, to be served consecutively to the hate crime sentence, as well as a fine of $250,000.

“Hate crimes are especially devastating because one cruel act against one person is an attack on an entire community,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Cheyvoryea Gibson of the FBI’s Salt Lake Field Office City. “I want to reassure the citizens of Montana that the FBI is committed to defending and protecting the rights of all people 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 multiple times and then beheading it at a public campground. He served two years in prison for animal cruelty in connection with that incident.

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