- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - A suburban contractor pleaded guilty Thursday to setting a fire at a Chicago-area radar facility in September that forced the cancellation of thousands of flights and disrupted travel nationwide, while prosecutors estimated that losses from the incident likely exceed $100 million.

Brian Howard, 37, of Naperville, stood with his legs shackled in U.S. District Court in Chicago as he entered the pleas to willfully destroying an air navigation facility and using fire to commit a felony. Under his plea deal, he faces at least a mandatory decade behind bars.

Howard told a judge he was taking the antidepressant Zoloft, but replied “No, your honor” when asked if either the drug or his underlying condition impaired his judgment in making the pleas.

According to court filings, Howard walked into the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora where he worked 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 and Midway international airports, and the center itself didn’t reopen for two weeks.

Defense attorney Ronald Safer told reporters outside court that his client never intended to cause such widespread disruptions and that he believed backup systems would kick in within hours.

“Obviously, he was wrong,” Safer said. But he added, “The only person Brian tried to harm was himself.”

The question of how well Howard understood the consequences of his actions at the time will likely determine whether he gets the mandatory minimum sentence or several years more. Judge Gary Feinerman set a Sept. 11 sentencing date.

The defense says 10 years is enough, while prosecutors say Howard knew the peril he was putting travelers in, so deserves around 18 years.

A prosecutor also told Feinerman that Howard could be held formally responsible for more than $100 million in restitution.

Safer told reporters the figure was academic. “You can’t pay what you don’t have,” he said.

Howard appeared relaxed at Thursday’s hearing, answering question calmly and clearly. As marshals led him back to jail, he smiled and waved at family and friends in court, saying, “I love you all!”

But Safer told reporters Howard continued to suffer from mental illness. While an insanity defense would have required that Howard demonstrate he did not know the difference between right and wrong, Safer said Howard did know.


Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm

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