Air-traffic fire defendant pleads not guilty -- for now
Blaze at air traffic control facility in September shut down O'Hare and Midway
A Naperville man charged with setting fire to an Aurora air traffic control facility last September in what his attorneys say was a failed suicide attempt entered a not guilty plea Thursday in federal court.
However, moments after the brief hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason, defense attorney Ron Safer said negotiations are under way that could lead Brian Howard, 37, to change his plea to guilty in hopes of getting treatment for mental health problems.
"From day one, Brian has taken responsibility for his actions," Safer said of the September fire that shut down O'Hare and Midway airports, forced the cancellation of thousands of flights and snarled air traffic throughout the region for days.
"We anticipate at the next court date, we will ask for a change of plea," said Safer, who is working with federal prosecutors on an agreement that would have his client plead guilty to destruction of aircraft facilities, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Safer said he will ask the judge to send Howard to a federal medical facility that provides mental health treatment.
"We're hopeful he gets the help he needs" so he can once again be the productive member of society he was, Safer said.
According to Safer, Howard "served his country with distinction" as a member of the Navy.
He had been a field technician for Harris Corp., which handles Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications, for eight years. He was, says Safer, "a model employee."
Not long before the fire, Howard learned he would be transferred to Hawaii, authorities said. They say he cut cables and set fire to a basement telecommunications room, then attempted to take his own life.
As he entered and left the courtroom, Howard mouthed "hi" and "bye" to family members who attended the five-minute hearing.
After the hearing, Howard's sister April Connor made a statement on behalf of his family.
"My brother Brian is a wonderful, caring son, uncle to my kids and godfather to my son," Connor said. "He would never hurt anyone."
"He unfortunately suffers from mental illness," she said.
Connor, who was surrounded by eight family members, thanked first responders for saving her brother's life.
She also expressed regret on behalf of Howard and his family for the damage done.
"He's very sorry," she said.