By now, the facts are well known: On Sunday, March 22, 2020, John Russell Howald walked down his hometown of Basin’s main strip, dressed in black and carrying four guns, including two AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition. He fired 11 shots into the home of Katy James, a member of Basin’s lesbian community, which Howald later made clear was his target. He fired several more shots after being confronted by neighbors.

This story also appeared in The Boulder Monitor

There were, thankfully, no casualties as a result of the rampage. Howald was convicted in February 2023 of firearm and hate crimes — and on June 13, a federal judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

And with that, arguably, justice was done. Some saw it as a bizarre and sad case closed — a profoundly troubled man sent to prison for a horrific but bloodless crime.

But for many in Basin, Howald’s spree was a defining moment. It caused deep pain for people associated both with the shooter and with his intended victims. It also exposed and crystallized decades of tension in the tiny community around sexual identity, forcing people to reckon openly with difficult issues that had long been half-buried. 

It wasn’t a cure-all: Many of the rifts that divided Basin before the crime remain. But Howald’s extreme and so nearly catastrophic actions served as a wake-up call. If not unity, they at least brought about agreement among most residents that hateful actions towards neighbors – no matter their sexual orientation, race or political opinion – is unacceptable.

Basin, a village of 267 people (according to the 2020 Census) located 10 miles west of Boulder, has a rich history that goes back to when gold was discovered in Alder Gulch in the 1860s. The town was founded in 1880 by the mining company Lawson & Allport, and by 1894, with the development of the Katie and Hope mines, Basin was booming. 

That success was not lasting. “Probably no mining town in Montana has had so many ups and downs without degenerating into a real ghost town,” wrote Olive Hagadone in her 2004 history, “Boulder: Its Friends and Neighbors.” Fire destroyed the Katie Mine in 1895 and the Hope Mine a year later. A fire at the Union Hotel in 1901 burned down six downtown buildings, and another in 1903 destroyed over half of the business district.

Basin’s pioneers rebuilt, installed electricity, built a water system and erected the Basin Brewing Company one mile north of town. By 1905, Basin had more than 1,500 residents. But the gold, copper and zinc were in short supply, and Basin’s Hewlett State Bank failed. There were hints off and on into the 1960s that some mining would revive the town, but these efforts were short-lived. The area was left with a raft of hazardous mine by-products — arsenic, cadmium, lead and others — yielding a Superfund site that still has not been cleaned up.

Basin fell into decline. By the 1970s, according to residents, it became a haven for groups of hippies. The Cossacks Motorcycle Club, a Texas biker gang, had a presence in town as well, causing some anxiety.

And then, a new generation of pioneers arrived. Jazz musician MJ Williams, painter Nan Parsons and other artists, whose mediums included painting, poetry, photography, pottery and sculpture, moved to town, forging a community of their own and refurbishing a large part of Basin’s downtown. Some of them were lesbians.

“We were the original refugees,” Williams recalls. “[Parsons’] dad owned some land in the area. We didn’t have any money, but we had the energy. We revitalized a lot of properties so we could live marginally and still be artists.”

“If people in this community are saying that queers are a disease and need to be eradicated…[that’s] a very scary dynamic.” Such persecution “is something queer people have to deal with all the time.” — M.J. Williams. Credit: Charlie Denison / The Monitor

The women dreamed of building a community of creatives. In 1993, Williams, Parsons, Nancy Owens, Joy Lewis and others established the Montana Artists Refuge. Consisting of two historic brick buildings in downtown Basin, it was designed “for artists to relax, create and rejuvenate away from the hectic pace and pressures of urban life,” according to its website. 

The refuge operated until 2015, and after a seven-year hiatus, resumed operation in 2022, drawing artists from China, Poland, South Africa, Ireland, New York, Texas, California and elsewhere. According to Williams, since 1993, more than 300 people have taken up residencies in the refuge’s five apartments and studios. The campus also includes the downtown Montana Artist Refuge Gallery – which Parsons owns – and the Basin Creek Pottery and Gallery music venue known to locals as “The Dusty Bowl” – owned and renovated by the Eckman family.

Bryher Herak – a retired civil rights attorney and resident of Basin since 2000 – and her partner Melissa Kwasny – the 2019 Montana poet laureate – have played a large part in the recent expansion of the refuge, including remodeling the log cabin downtown known as “The Emmabell.” Herak said it brings her joy to have such an interactive artistic community in Basin. That’s what she’s here for – to live in a quiet village, enjoy her pastimes with like-minded neighbors and continue to build on a refuge to give other artists an opportunity to step away and be productive in a nurturing environment. She doesn’t want to create any controversy. She just wants to live peacefully, enjoying a small-town atmosphere. 

That has sometimes been difficult. After the incursions by hippies and the Cossacks, says one person, the emerging lesbian community prompted considerably less fear among longtime Basin residents. Compared to the biker gang, the women seemed “easier to confront.” But they still were perceived by many as alien, and their presence in Basin seen as threatening. 

In 1982, discord erupted when Marilyn Sternberg, a Basin mother raising two children with her female partner, ran for Floyd Oliver’s seat on the Basin School Board. Sternberg – who now lives in Maine and goes by Marilyn Eckberg – told The Monitor she ran for the seat because she felt it was her civic duty. Eckberg said she can’t recall tension before the election, but once she put her hat in the ring, there was immediate pushback.

“Until the school board election [the lesbian artists] were an integrated part of the community,” Eckberg said. “I had crossed some invisible line. Running for school board was apparently forbidden.”

As the campaign commenced, a local group called Concerned Citizens emerged. Oliver, then and now pastor at Basin’s Church of the Nazarene and one of the Concerned Citizens’ leaders, said the group believed homosexuality should not be an issue with children. When it comes to the logic of homosexuality, Oliver has said it is wrong and indefensible – not to be judged, but because there is no safe place for children. 

As a result of Concerned Citizens’ efforts, according to Eckberg, the community of lesbian artists in town was essentially shunned.

“You’d go to the post office and the lady behind the counter could barely stand you,” she recalls. “Whoever we’d encounter, if they were influenced by [Concerned Citizens] at all, they just pretended like we didn’t exist. It was impactful and very hurtful.”

Oliver denies ever “shunning” the lesbian community and says that at the time of the school board campaign, what he said from the pulpit amounted to: “God forbid it be so, but I would rather be homosexual on Judgment Day than a hypocrite…A hypocrite is the elevated height of pride and I dare not act like pride is of no concern to me.”

For a time, the community lived on edge. Eckberg says a few members of the lesbian community bought handguns. Oliver recalls a meeting when he was visiting with some members of the lesbian community, a meeting Eckberg said did nothing to resolve the polarizing hostility. A fire alarm went off, and there was real fear, he says, that a home belonging to one of the lesbians was the target. That turned out not to be the case, but the moment still was unnerving.

Eckberg would lose the election by 54 votes. But in some ways, say Basin residents, the core tension was never resolved. In the 40 years since, Basin’s straight and lesbian communities have lived together, often worked together and helped each other — but the underlying problem hasn’t gone away, even if many of those involved with the Concerned Citizens no longer reside in Basin.

“If people in this community are saying that queers are a disease and need to be eradicated, that could be a prime set-up. When [Howald] is drugging and drinking, then [queers] become a perfect target. That’s a very scary dynamic because you can’t totally blame [Howald] and you can’t totally blame the community, but the two things together are pretty lethal,” Williams says. She’s concerned that anti-gay messages continue to feed bias. 

Such persecution, she said, “is something queer people have to deal with all the time… It gets old.” Williams said she just wants to play her music and do her part to be a good steward of the community. She tried to do this as chair of the Basin Water and Sewer District board. That board, however, was met with much opposition while attempting to install water meters, a move that would increase water rates. In April of 2021, amid considerable vitriol and facing a recall petition signed by more than 30 residents, Williams and the other three members of the water board resigned. 

Downtown Basin, Montana, where John Russell Howald’s shooting rampage took place on March 22, 2020. Credit: Charlie Denison / The Monitor

It’s unclear if tensions were heightened because there was a lesbian presence on the board. A flier posted around town at the time listed some lesbian residents and their property holdings, in a way that seemed calculated to heighten fear. But the COVID pandemic also was causing anger and division, and the financial challenges facing the board were real. (The current water and sewer board is now moving in the same direction with water meters and rate increases.)

DeDe Rhodes, current Basin Water and Sewer District Board treasurer, said she didn’t care one way or the other about the sexual orientation of the water board members. She just wanted board members to listen to the citizens of the community. 

“We just wanted them to tell us what was wrong with the water system, and to be transparent about it,” Rhodes said. “That’s all any of us were concerned about. We wanted to be heard. A few choice words were said, but they didn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation.”

As for Oliver, he says that when it comes to living with homosexuals in his community he can either wave or look the other way (a Biblical reference). Oliver said he has chosen to wave. That decision has been uneasy: It comes from his heart and upbringing, but it also comes with conflict – as pastor, he says, he remains wary of implicitly condoning a lifestyle he believes could have a harmful effect on children. Regardless, Oliver has worked with Parsons, who repainted the walls of the church after a fire in the early 2000s, and he hosted Parsons and a group of classical musicians for a Bach tribute night, right around the time there was tension with the water board, a conflict Oliver said he steered clear from. 

Still, was there a ripple effect from tension stirred in the 80s? During his trial in February, Howald said he’d heard anti-gay rhetoric in town and at church. He did not specify which church, be it Basin or elsewhere. 

Oliver said he didn’t recognize Howald as someone connected to the church. “But I’m not going to say I am innocent. How many things have I done that have contributed to confusion? Only God knows.”

Howald’s aunt Judi Colombe, who also lives in Basin, says her nephew has a tender heart: “He sees kindness as love, and he responds to it.” But he also has his demons, a darkness within.

And he has problems with alcohol. On March 22, 2020, according to court reports, Howald had been drinking Jameson whiskey. And, when he drinks, Colombe said, “he’s terrible.” In 2005, a drunken Howald shot and decapitated a pet dog that strayed into his campsite near Bernice and then threw the severed head at the dog’s owners, according to news reports from the time. He served two years in prison for animal cruelty. He’d also been arrested on assault charges at age 18 and age 26, both while living in Missouri.

But there was something more going on three years ago. The closest anyone came to getting shot by Howald that day was James, a part-time Basin resident in her 70s who identifies as a lesbian. She was in the shower when Howald shot into her home, and was unharmed. 

Why James? An audio clip from Oliver’s phone the day of the shooting — he had forgotten to turn off the recording after his sermon —  made Howald’s motivation more than clear. As Howald approached the church, he said he wanted to “get rid of the [expletive] lesbians… and [expletive] queers.” He said in the recording that he hoped to “clean the town of its sickness” and “start an [expletive] revolution.”

According to his statements made during the trial, and according to Colombe, Howald was struggling with his own homosexual temptations and tendencies. During the trial, according to court documents, Howald said he’s had gay relationships with three men and came out as gay to his brother in 2016.

“[Howald] too is a victim,” said Herak, who was out in her yard with her partner the day of Howald’s rampage, less than a block away. “As a young person growing up in Basin, he may have been confused [about his sexual orientation] and didn’t know what to do.”

Howald’s shots at James missed their mark — and as he strode along Main Street, still fully armed, Basin’s best instincts emerged. Stacy Hale and her husband Ron, a childhood friend of Howald’s, were leaving Sunday service when they encountered him. According to Oliver, Ron Hale tried to talk Howald out of more shooting and was making progress. Howald, noticeably still angry, fired a few rounds into the ground. 

“I thought Ron’s logic and expressed concerns were undermining [Howald’s] intent,” Oliver wrote after the sentencing. “I thought [Howald’s] firing was the result of trying to defend and muster back up that intent…it seemed to me that against [Howald’s] desire, his determination was being very greatly diminished by Ron.”

John Russell Howald. Credit: Montana Department of Corrections

Stacy Hale then embraced Howald. Stacy later told The Monitor that Howald “for whatever reason accepted my presence and allowed me to keep a very close grip on his backpack straps.” It was a striking moment; Basin resident and retired Jefferson County Sheriff Deputy Richard Rhodes thought Stacy Hale’s action too risky. But it was effective, stalling Howald long enough for Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Sean Gardner to arrive on the scene. 

That led to a brief stand-off. According to documents filed in the U.S. District Court of Montana, Howald ​​”pointed an assault rifle at [Gardner], nearly starting a shootout in downtown Basin.” Documents state Gardner demanded Howald put his guns down, and Howald insisted Gardner put his gun down instead. Howald admitted during his trial that he felt suicidal at that point, hoping that law enforcement would kill him. “He was mad,” Colombe said. “He wanted to create a suicide-by-cop situation. That was his main focus.”

But Gardner didn’t fire, and Howald turned and walked away from the scene. According to court documents, Howald “fled into the hills, firing off at least one more round as he went.” The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office kept a presence in town that evening, as did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Howald was arrested at his trailer home the next day.

The church service was over by the time Howald walked by, Oliver said, but God’s work wasn’t finished. God was in charge of that day, he said.

“Ron and Stacy Hale were appointed by God to save a village,” he said. “It’s a work of God that nobody got shot.” 

Three years after Howald’s crime, Basin appears to have reached some measure of closure. 

Herak says some neighbors have responded with compassion for the lesbian community. “A few people in town have said, ‘God, I’m sorry this happened to your community,’” Herak says. Those included some of Howald’s family. “I wish more people had, but like Stacy and Ron Hale told us, ‘everybody should be able to be safe in their homes.’” 

Since the shooting, Herak added, the Hales have had more of a relationship with her and Kwasny, an indication that, through this horrific event, a shared connection was established. “Now, when we see each other, we ask how we’re doing,” Herak says.

Parsons says “things are fairly peaceful and cooperative. I don’t feel threatened. No one is getting in my business, and I don’t get in theirs.”

As for James, she says she will never forget what she experienced that day. She expects to continue living with that trauma. But perhaps, she said, a lesson has been learned through all of this.

“Hate manifests more hostility,” she says. “By getting rid of the hate, you work toward getting rid of the sickness.”

Changing hearts and minds often is a long-term proposition. And Basin is still, for the most part, the community it has always been: diverse and complex, animated by multiple social and cultural currents in tension. It is populated by good and well-meaning people, but it’s still not unusual to hear unsettling bigoted conversations at the local bar.  

But it appears to Herak that the community has largely agreed that hate speech and bigotry will not be tolerated. 

“Most of the folks who live in Basin and who visit are looking for a quiet place to enjoy this beautiful place we live,” Herak said. “Our community includes lots of people; some who just are here visiting the radon mines, artists who are visiting the Montana Artists Refuge and many of us who are year-round residents. What we have in common is a love of Montana and a love of our quiet town. I want to believe and for the most part, do believe that we have each other’s back.”

Sarina Eckman, a Basin native and supporter of the Arts Refuge, sees the change.

“I hope that Basin has learned that we all have value in this world and we can all contribute positively to our community,” she says. “Violence and intimidation are not viable solutions to disagreements. We can have different values and beliefs and still be supportive of a safe and livable community.”

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Charlie Denison is the editor of The Boulder Monitor. He is a veteran Montana reporter whose Treasure State journalism career has included two years at the Glendive Ranger-Review, nine years at the Lewistown News-Argus and a wide range of freelance work, including bylines in Montana Quarterly Magazine and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Charlie fell in love with Montana when his dad, a Presbyterian minister, took a job preaching at Big Sky's Soldiers Chapel. Once he graduated from the University of Kentucky with a journalism degree, Charlie followed his parents out to the Last Best Place, where he enjoys...