A Naperville contractor who pleaded guilty to setting a fire in a Chicago-area air traffic control facility last year received a 12-and-a-half-year sentence Friday.
During an emotional hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building, 37-year-old Brian Howard sobbed as he apologized to the court, his family and the flying public.
"The first thing I have to say is I'm sorry," the shackled Howard told Judge Gary Feinerman. "I did not act out of anger. I acted out of despair. I am filled with shame."
Howard set the fire at the Aurora facility where he worked in September 2014. His sabotage cut off communication with more than 100 aircraft in the Midwest, erasing the flight plans of scores of flights and creating chaos in the nation's skies for weeks. The fire forced the cancellation of thousands of flights and disrupted travel nationwide. Prosecutors estimated losses from the incident at more than $100 million.
Howard received a mandatory sentence of 10 years for a charge of using fire to commit a felony. He received an additional 30 months for a charge of willfully destroying an air navigation facility. He pleaded guilty to the charges in May.
According to court filings, Howard walked into the Chicago Enroute Center in Aurora, where he worked as a contract employee, before dawn on Sept. 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 did not reopen for weeks.
Defense attorney Ronald Safer begged the judge to consider Howard's otherwise exemplary life. He noted his service on a nuclear submarine in the U.S. Navy as well as his spotless work history.
Much of Friday's hearing concerned the finer points of the law under which Howard was charged, including whether he had intentionally endangered others and whether the damage he inflicted was the result of a reckless act. Safer argued that the apparent explanation that Howard was acting out against employees was too simple and missed the reality of what happened. According to Safer, Howard was not just a disgruntled employee; he was also mentally ill.
"What is very clear is that ... he had no idea the havoc that his crime wrought," Safer said. "He didn't think it would cause more than a minor delay, and clearly it did. It created a horrible situation. From the very beginning, he has felt awful about that. He immediately accepted responsibility. He immediately pled guilty. He regrets what he did."
Safer said Howard will receive medication in prison, and he feels "optimistic" Howard will get the help he needs.
Howard's family packed the gallery during the court proceedings, sobbing openly as his criminal act and cowardice were discussed. In the end, Feinerman took nearly an hour to impose the sentence.
"Although Mr. Howard didn't commit this crime for personal gain, it was still an extremely selfish act," Feinerman said, finding that Howard's actions were intentional.