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Montana man convicted on federal hate crime, firearm charges

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HELENA—A Montana man was convicted on federal hate crime and firearm charges after prosecutors said he threatened a woman with violent, homophobic slurs and fired at her house with an AK-47 rifle as part of an alleged “mission” to rid a small town of its lesbian and gay community.

John Russell Howald of Basin was found guilty Friday following a four day jury trial before U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Helena.

Defense attorney Colin Stephens said Sunday that an appeal is planned.

Prosecutors said Howald attempted to kill the woman in the small town of Basin in March 2020 when he walked up to her house and shot into it. Howald allegedly said he wanted to “get rid of the lesbians (and) gays” in the town and was armed with three rifles and two pistols.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said the attack was part of an “epidemic” of violence targeting people based on their sexual orientation.

“This defendant is being held accountable for attempting to violently eliminate the entire LGBTQ community in a small Montana town,” Clarke said in a statement.

Stephens said the defense team disagreed with the verdict and looked forward to representing Howald on appeal.

He faces a maximum of life in prison on the hate crime charge. Sentencing is scheduled for June 15.

Howald is serving a 10-year sentence in Montana State Prison after being convicted on a state charge of criminal endangerment stemming from the 2020 shooting, according to Montana Department of Corrections records. In 2006, he was sentenced to two years in prison for felony aggravated animal cruelty, after pleading guilty to shooting a chocolate labrador at a campground near Bernice and decapitating the dog with a chainsaw.

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