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Man previously convicted of beheading dog faces possible life sentence for ‘attempting to violently eliminate the entire LGBTQ community’ in Montana town

John Russell Howald mugshot

John Russell Howald

A 46-year-old Montana man who served jail time for beheading a dog may spend the rest of his life behind bars after being convicted on hate crime and weapons charges for firing an assault rifle into the home of a lesbian to “rid the town” of gays and lesbians.

Following a four-day trial, a federal jury found John Russell Howald guilty of hate crime acts and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“This defendant is being held accountable for attempting to violently eliminate the entire LGBTQ community in a small Montana town,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

Court documents showed that on the evening of March 22, 2020, Howald armed himself with three rifles and two handguns and went on a self-described mission to rid the town of Basin of its lesbian and gay community, the DOJ said.

Prosecutors say he identified the victim based on her sexual orientation, approached her house, and then used an AK-style assault rifle to fire several shots at her home. Rounds struck her fence, yard, porch, and house. One round pierced her wall and bounced off her kitchen ceiling before becoming lodged in a wall. She was not hurt.

Howald then walked to another home occupied by “people who identify and are known locally as gay or lesbian,” the release states.

On the way, Howald ran into a group of people leaving a church service, several of whom recognized him and approached him. They told investigators they saw Howald with weapons and talking about his mission of killing lesbian and gay people in town.

“One of those people, a pastor, unknowingly had left on a recording device that he used for his sermons. The device recorded about 10 minutes of his interaction with Howald until Howald demanded that the pastor walk away,” the release states. “The recording captured Howald making statements that he might have killed a lesbian and that he hoped he had, and that he was going to get rid of lesbians and queers in Basin. The recording also captured Howald firing off several more rounds during his interaction with these individuals.”

When deputies told him to put his weapons down, he refused, pointed a rifle at a deputy and ran, firing at least one more round. He was taken into custody the next day with multiple guns and knives in his possession.

Howald was convicted in 2006 on one charge of cruelty to animals after he shot a chocolate Labrador dog several times and then beheaded the animal at a public campsite in Montana. He served 24 months behind bars for the animal cruelty charge.

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.