When Dan Palmer’s flight to Chicago — along with countless others — was cancelled last September, the Bartlett man jumped in his car and drove through the night so that he could see his dying sister one last time.
Somewhere near Tulsa, Okla., Palmer learned his trip from Dallas would be wasted. He was too late.
Palmer was at the Dirksen Federal Building Friday as U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feinerman handed Brian Howard, the man who sabotaged an FAA radar center in Aurora and caused last year’s travel chaos, to 12 1/2 years in prison.
“I want Mr. Howard to know how his actions affected many people in many ways he can’t even imagine,” said Palmer, his voice thick with emotion, as he testified in court about the trip to see his cancer-stricken sister.
Feinerman pointed to the baptisms, job interviews, the honeymoons that were all missed because of what he called Howard’s “extremely selfish act.”
“This wasn’t merely an inconvenience,” Feinerman said. “This was far more than that . . . Inconvenience doesn’t begin to describe what happened here.”
In the early morning hours of Sept. 26, a suicidal Howard, who was employed as a contractor by the FAA, walked into the air traffic facility in Aurora and sliced communication wires and set a fire, before cutting his throat and wrists. The sabotage stranded thousands of air travelers and disrupted flights for several days. It also caused the FAA to reassess its backup systems.
Howard spoke in court Friday, saying, tearfully, that he never intended to hurt anyone and that he still can’t explain why he committed sabotage, calling it an act of “despair.”
“Nothing I did makes sense,” he said. “As I go through this in my head, it’s like watching someone else.”
At one point, Howard turned to apologize to Palmer, but the Bartlett man had already left the courtroom.
The lawyers and Feinerman all agreed that Howard was clearly suffering from depression when he committed his crime, and it was a factor in the judge’s leniency. Howard could have received as much as 30 years in prison.
Howard’s attorney, Ron Safer, said his client behaved recklessly and wasn’t thinking rationally, while prosecutors described Howard’s actions as a “targeted and premeditated attack.”
Federal prosecutor Andrew K. Polovin noted that Howard sought out a “very precise location” at the FAA center, cutting wires in a place “he knew was the most vulnerable.”
Feinerman agreed that Howard’s actions were intentional, pointing to a Howard Facebook posting minutes before attempting suicide. In the posting, Howard talks specifically about wanting to “take out” the Aurora facility.
“I’m not saying he wanted aircraft to crash, and I don’t believe he wanted them to crash,” Feinerman said, adding he believed Howard wanted to “increase the risk of danger.”
Safer told Feinerman he’d initially “flinched” when he learned his client was to be sentenced on Sept. 11.
“It provides a stark contrast to what Brian did and who Brian is,” Safer said. “This was not an act of terrorism.”
As Howard was led away in an orange jumpsuit, he waved to a large gathering of family and friends and shouted: “Love you all!”
To which they replied, in unison: “Love you!”