Attorney: Man charged in FAA fire made 'tragic mistake'

  • In this courtroom sketch, Brian Howard, right, of Naperville and his attorney, Ron Safer, second right, appear Monday afternoon before federal judge Michael T. Mason along with prosecutor Andrew Polovin.

    In this courtroom sketch, Brian Howard, right, of Naperville and his attorney, Ron Safer, second right, appear Monday afternoon before federal judge Michael T. Mason along with prosecutor Andrew Polovin. Associated Press/Tom Gianni

  • The air traffic control facility in Aurora where a fire caused a shutdown of O'Hare and Midway airports Friday.

    The air traffic control facility in Aurora where a fire caused a shutdown of O'Hare and Midway airports Friday. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/30/2014 12:43 PM

The Naperville man whose failed suicide attempt Friday in the Chicago Center air traffic control facility in Aurora forced the cancellation of thousands of flights at O'Hare and Midway airports made his first appearance before a U.S. magistrate judge Monday.

Brian Howard, 36, is charged with one count of destruction of aircraft facilities. If convicted he could face up to 20 years in prison.

 

Defense attorney Ken Safer, who described his client as "deeply troubled," waived a preliminary hearing for Howard, who appeared with a bandage covering what authorities say is a self-inflicted stab wound to his neck. Howard arrived in court from the Aurora hospital where he was taken after paramedics discovered him Friday morning.

"I'm sorry," said Howard to family members in court.

"Don't apologize," they replied tearfully. "We love you."

Safer did not object when federal prosecutors, arguing that Howard posed a danger to the community and himself, opposed the Naperville man's release on bail. Howard will be held at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Chicago, where he will receive any medical attention he requires.

Safer asked the public for compassion for his client and privacy for his family.

"Friday morning Brian tried to take his life," Safer said after the hearing. "That he did so in a way that inconvenienced many, many people is unacceptable and he deeply regrets that.

"He made a tragic mistake in the course of trying to take his own life," Safer added. "Only someone who is deeply troubled would do that."

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Howard had worked for eight years as a field technician for Harris Corp., which handles Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications systems and is one of its largest contractors. He recently learned he would be transferred to Hawaii, authorities said

A field technician, Howard's job was to work on hardware and software "to modernize and to sustain the existing telecommunication system that the FAA uses," said Jim Burke, a spokesman for the Melbourne, Florida-based company.

"He has since been terminated from his position," said Burke, adding that the company isn't releasing additional information about Howard.

"It's an active investigation with the law enforcement and, of course, all the work that we're doing to cooperate with the FAA," Burke said. "The focus right now is on those two areas, making sure that we're providing as much information to the FBI and (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) on the investigation and getting the FAA system operational as quickly as possible."

Prosectors say Howard arrived at the control center at 5:06 a.m. Friday dragging a roller board suitcase.

About 30 minutes later, prosecutors say, a relative forwarded to the Naperville police a message on Howard's Facebook account that read, in part: "I am about to take out ZAU (the FAA call number for the Aurora facility) and my life. April, Pop love you guys and I am sorry. Leaving you with a big mess. Do your best to move on quickly from me please ... I'm gonna smoke this blunt and move on."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Naperville police forwarded the message to Aurora police who received a call about 5:42 a.m. that the control center was on fire.

Firefighters found blood on the floor of the control center basement where a floor panel had been pulled away, revealing telecommunications cables and other wires, authorities said. They also observed a gas can and a nozzle, burned towels and a roller board suitcase.

Following a trail of blood, paramedics found a lighter and several knives. They also found a shirtless Howard lying under a table "actively slicing his throat with another knife," according to the court documents.

FAA representatives say the sabotage damaged about two dozen racks of computers and cabling and affected hundreds of thousands of travelers over the weekend. Delays and cancellations continued Monday at O'Hare International Airport, which was operating at about 80 percent capacity. Midway Airport was operating at about 95 percent capacity, according to FAA representatives. The FAA expects to restore full service by Oct. 13.

Aviation officials recommend travelers check with their airline before traveling to either airport.

• Daily Herald reporter Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.

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