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Man faces 30-year sentence after pleading guilty in arson that disrupted air travel

The fate of a Naperville man who set fire to an Aurora air traffic facility while trying to kill himself last September — stranding thousands of air passengers in the process — could hinge on whether prosecutors can convince a judge he intentionally put those passengers’ lives in danger.

Brian Howard, 37, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday. He formally admitted he set the fire that disabled an air navigation facility controlling air space over Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. He entered his plea in a crowded courtroom full of family and friends in hopes of getting treatment for his mental health issues.

As he was led out of the courtroom, he called out “thank you all” to the people in the gallery, who replied nearly in unison: “Love you!” Howard wore glasses and was dressed in orange jail garb. He has been held at the Kankakee County Jail, which offers no mental health services.

<small><strong>Brian Howard cut wires and set a fire at the FAA facility in Aurora. | Facebook photo</strong></small>
Brian Howard cut wires and set a fire at the FAA facility in Aurora. | Facebook photo

“The courtroom was filled with [Howard’s] family and friends because he is a kind, generous, good person,” Ron Safer, Howard’s attorney, said later.

Howard faces as many as 30 years in prison at his sentencing, which has been scheduled for Sept. 11. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Polovin also said prosecutors could seek more than $100 million in restitution. But Safer said the amounts of any fine and restitution are “angels dancing on the head of a pin because [Howard] doesn’t have resources.”

“You can’t pay what you don’t have,” Safer said.

The primary argument when attorneys return to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman in September could be whether Howard intentionally endangered air travelers on Sept. 26 — or if he simply acted recklessly when he sliced telecommunication wires and set a fire at the facility before cutting his throat and wrists.

Howard worked at the facility as a contractor, and federal prosecutors said he got into the facility using credentials issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Those prosecutors are expected to argue Howard knew what would happen when he damaged the facility. And if they’re successful, Howard could face a sentence ranging from a little more than 17 years to as many as 19 years in prison. If Safer can convince the judge Howard didn’t realize how much trouble he would cause, his sentence could be closer to 12 years.

<small><strong>Attorney Ron Safer says his client, Brian Howard, has always accepted responsibility for what he did. | Sun-Times File Photo</strong></small>
Attorney Ron Safer says his client, Brian Howard, has always accepted responsibility for what he did. | Sun-Times File Photo

Regardless, Safer said he’ll seek the minimum sentence Feinerman may impose — 10 years and one day in prison. He said Howard knew “better than most” that back-up systems were supposed to kick in “within minutes.” Safer also said Howard sabotaged the facility at a time when there is “very low air traffic.”

Howard broke into the facility carrying a can filled with gasoline, a lighter, a towel and knives about 5 a.m., prosecutors said.

“The only person that Brian tried to harm was himself,” Safer said.

But the havoc he wreaked caused the FAA to reassess its backup systems. And in November, FAA chief Michael Huerta outlined a three-stage plan that would allow the country’s air traffic control system to recover in hours, rather than days, from a disaster — but only if it gets more resources.

Despite Howard’s work as a contractor, a Facebook post at the time indicates he thought his actions would have limited consequences.

The only way chaos could break out, Howard wrote, was if government employees bungled their response to his sabotage efforts at the Aurora facility — earning their reputation for being “lazy and useless.”

“The outage I’m about to take should not take a large toll on the air space as all comms should be switched to the alt location which will most likely cause some delays,” Howard wrote in the private Facebook post. “That being said, who knows what else will become a factor due to gov’t employees being in control of the upcoming situation.”

Howard posted the comments minutes before his suicide attempt.

The posting alarmed a family member, who called police. About the same time, an employee at the facility called authorities to report a fire in the control center.

Howard said in the Facebook posting he was “stoned and nervous” about the actions he was about to undertake. And he said he had little hope for humanity, referring to the public as “lazy.”

“I have no faith. Not in humanity, anyway, you are all about death,” he wrote.

After ranting about the U.S. government, he closed by apologizing to his family for “leaving you with a big mess.” Then he turned to the task at hand.

“I feel like I give a s— for the first time in a long time again . . . but not for too long (haha!),” Howard wrote. “So I’m gonna smoke this blunt and move on, take care everyone.”