Naperville man gets 12½ years for setting fire at Aurora FAA facility
Brian Howard of Naperville was sentenced Friday to 12½ years in prison on federal charges that he set fire to an air-traffic control center in Aurora a year ago, causing flight delays across the country and the world.
He also was ordered by U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman to serve three years of parole after his sentence and to pay $4.5 million restitution to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Howard, 37, pleaded guilty May 28 to intentionally disabling telecommunications infrastructure at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center on Sept. 26, 2014, and to setting fire to the area that housed the equipment.
Howard had faced a possible sentence of 30 years and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross loss caused by his action.
He has been in federal custody since his arrest.
A tearful and at times sobbing Howard apologized to family, friends and everyone affected by what he did.
"I'm really sorry," he told the court. "I've had 11½ months to think about what I did and I still can't explain it. I'm filled with shame. I never wanted to add to anyone's burden, so I did not share with them that I was depressed. I truly thought I would only cause minor delays."
Howard's defense attorney, Ronald Safer, told the court Howard has been diagnosed with a persistent depressive disorder.
"This was a uniquely abhorrent act committed by a good man who had begun to lose his battle with mental illness," Safer said.
But Feinerman said that despite any mental illness, Howard acted intentionally and endangered both the FAA facility and the flying public in "an extremely selfish act."
Prosecutors said 135 planes were in the air space controlled by the Aurora facility over a five-state area at the time of the fire. They called Howard's actions a "targeted, premeditated attack."
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.
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 worked for about eight years for a Federal Aviation Administration contractor on telecommunications matters.
Outside court, Safer said Howard's earnings will be tapped for the rest of his life to make restitution to the FAA. He said he is confident Howard will get the mental health treatment and medicine he needs in federal prison.
"What is very clear is that although Brian was trying to take his own life and he was trying to create a headache for his employer, he had no idea the havoc his crime brought," Safer said. "He didn't think it would cause more than a minor delay and clearly it did. It created a horrible situation.
"He feels awful about that. He immediately accepted responsibility. He regrets what he did and, from every fiber of his being, feels bad about the damage he caused."
Howard waved to his family and friends as he was led out of the courtroom.
"Thank you," he shouted. "I love you all!"