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Montana man pleads not guilty to federal hate crime charge

June 30, 2021 GMT

BUTTE, Mont. (AP) — A Montana man has pleaded not guilty to a federal hate crime charge filed after he was accused of threatening a person with violent, homophobic slurs and firing seven shots into the person’s house with an AK-47 rifle, prosecutors said.

John Russell Howald of Basin entered his plea Tuesday during a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Johnston in Great Falls, The Montana Standard reported. Howald, 44, also pleaded not guilty to a federal firearms charge.

Prosecutors said in March 2020, Howald attempted to kill a person in Basin because of their perceived sexual orientation when he shot the assault rifle into the person’s house and said he wanted to “get rid of the lesbians (and) gays.”

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Howald is serving a 10-year sentence in Montana State Prison after being convicted on a state charge of criminal endangerment stemming from the same incident, according to Montana Department of Corrections records.

An indictment charges Howald with violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and using a firearm during a violent crime. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison on the hate crime charge and a mandatory minimum of 10 years on the firearms charge.

Howald’s indictment came down earlier this month, as the U.S. Justice Department announced it was stepping up its enforcement of hate crimes.