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Saturday, September 12, 2015

FAA Fire Defendant Sentenced to Dozen Years in Prison



CHICAGO (WLS) -- The man who set a fire that brought O'Hare and Midway International airports to a standstill last year has been sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison.

Brian Howard pleaded guilty to setting the fire at the Aurora Air Traffic Control Center in September 2014. The fire disrupted air traffic across the nation.

He was talented and trusted, an exemplary contract employee at the Air Route Traffic Control center in Aurora. But no one can explain Howard's actions on that September day last year.

He used a special tool to lift a 30-pound floor tile at the precise junction of primary and back-up communication cables. He cut them, wrapped them in a gas soaked towel, lit it on fire, then tried to kill himself.

As he stood sobbing before the judge Friday, Howard said, "I'm so sorry. I've had 11-and-a-half months to think about what I did, but I still can't understand it."

"I did not act out of anger, but despair," he said.

Howard contends that what he did that day was a product of deep depression and mental illness, and that he did not intend to harm people or aircraft, only inconvenience the FAA center.

"He had no idea the havoc that his crime wrought, he didn't think it'd cause more than a minor delay," said Ron Safer, Howard's attorney.

Prosecutors, however, say Howard's actions, even with mental illness, were premeditated, intentional and while no lives were lost, they were deeply endangered.

The judge agreed and sentenced Howard to 12 and a half years in prison - saying his action - driven by mental illness - was nonetheless an extremely selfish act that brought the air traffic control system to its knees, costing the airlines tens of millions and inconveniencing air travelers nationwide.

Howard's family has been at every court hearing. They chose not to speak Friday, but in court Howard's sister tearfully said they were unaware of the depth of his depression and the demons he was fighting. To his family, Howard said, "Love you all."

"He regrets what he did and from every fiber of his being, he feels intensely sorry for the harm he caused," Safer said.

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