Naperville man pleads guilty in air control center fire

  • Emergency crews respond last September to a fire at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora. The Naperville man accused of setting the fire, Brian Howard, pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges in connection with the case.

    Emergency crews respond last September to a fire at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora. The Naperville man accused of setting the fire, Brian Howard, pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges in connection with the case. Courtesy of ABC 7 CHICAGO

 
 
Updated 6/5/2015 7:45 PM

Naperville resident Brian Howard pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges that he set fire to an air-traffic control center in Aurora last September, causing flight delays across the country and the world.

Howard, 37, pleaded guilty to intentionally disabling telecommunications infrastructure at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center on Sept. 26 and to setting fire to the area that housed the equipment, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago.

 

The formal charges -- which include one count of willfully setting fire to, damaging, destroying or disabling an air navigation facility and one count of using fire to commit a federal felony -- could come with a combined prison sentence of 30 years and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross loss caused by his actions, the U.S. attorney's office said.

U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feinerman will sentence Howard on Sept. 11. Until then, he will remain in federal custody, where he has been since his arrest in September 2014.

Court documents show Howard pleaded guilty "because he is in fact guilty" of willfully setting fire to and destroying parts of the air navigation facility.

According to his plea agreement, Howard entered the control center about 5 a.m. Sept. 26 with gasoline, a lighter, a towel and knives. He then slashed and ignited vital telecommunications cables under floor panels, damaging key infrastructure, cutting the facility's ability to communicate and likely endangering planes in flight.

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Authorities said Howard's actions were part of a failed suicide attempt. Firefighters responding to the blaze followed a trail of blood on the floor and found a shirtless Howard lying under a table trying to slice his own throat with a knife.

Howard had been working for a Federal Aviation Administration contractor on telecommunications matters for about eight years when he severed the cables and set the fire.

Howard was formally charged in May, when charges were announced by the U.S. attorneys office, the Chicago office of the FBI and the Chicago field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

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