A suburban contractor pleaded guilty Thursday to setting a fire in a Chicago air traffic control facility last September that forced the cancellation of thousands of flights, disrupting travel nationwide.
Prosecutors estimated losses from the incident at more than $100 million.
Howard pleaded guilty to charges of willfully destroying an air navigation facility and using fire to commit a felony. The latter charge carries a mandatory 10 year sentence which must be served after whatever sentence is levied on the first count.
"Brian thought that when he sliced those wires and lit a small fire that it would disable the facility and that for a few hours there would be a snarl in the system," said defense attorney Ron Safer, noting that Howard believed backup systems would kick in and the air traffic system would recover.
"He did this intentionally at a time when there was low air traffic," Safer said. "Obviously he was wrong."
A critical factor at sentencing will be whether the 37-year-old intended to cause danger to the flights that were in the air at the time. Safer will argue that was never his client’s intent. And indeed, a Facebook post from the morning of the incident backs up Howard’s contention that he expected the disruptions to be minimal.
"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," he wrote. "That being said, who knows what else will become a factor due to gov’t employees being in control of the upcoming situation."
According to court filings, Howard walked into the Chicago Enroute Center in Aurora, where he worked as a contract employee, before dawn on September 26 carrying a gas can, a lighter, and knives. He cut cables and set fire to a telecommunications room before trying to slit his throat. The disruption forced an hours-long shutdown of O’Hare International and Midway International airports. The center itself didn’t reopen for weeks.
Safer said he would argue for a sentence of 10 years and a day, while prosecutors said the severity of the crime called for at least 19 years in prison. The government indicated that they may try to hold Howard responsible for more than $100 million in restitution, a figure which Safer suggested was all but meaningless.
"The amount of the fine, the amount of restitution, are angels dancing on the head of a pin," he said after court. "He doesn’t have resources. You can’t pay what you don’t have."
In the meantime, Safer said he hoped that his client would now get the mental health treatment he desperately needs.
"His mental health right now is not good," he said. "He’s receiving no treatment in jail. Jails are not set up for treatment. Prisons are."
Howard’s sentencing hearing was scheduled set for September 11. As he was led back to the lockup after Thursday’s hearing, he smiled and waved at family and friends who had packed the courtroom, saying "I love you all."