Case Snapshot
Case ID: 5523
Classification: Mutilation/Torture
Animal: dog (non pit-bull)
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Animal was offleash or loose
Abuse was retaliation against animal's bad behavior
Drugs or alcohol involved
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Saturday, Sep 3, 2005

County: Jefferson

Disposition: Convicted

Defendant/Suspect: Russell John Howald

Case Updates: 6 update(s) available

A Butte family spent the weekend grieving after their dog was decapitated and its head thrown at them by another camper at a campsite near Bernice.

John Sullivan said that his 4-year-old chocolate lab, Gunner, was killed on Sept 3 after his parents, Mike and Brenda Sullivan of Butte, took him along with them for a holiday weekend camping trip. The dog's head, severed by a chainsaw, was thrown at the couple on that Saturday afternoon by a man in an orange pickup who also shouted expletives as he drove by, he said.

Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle confirmed Sullivan's story, calling the incident "a first" in his law enforcement experience.

Arrested in connection with the dog's death - and on several other charges - was John Russell Howald, 30, of Basin, who is being held on $100,000 bond in Jefferson County jail in Boulder.

John Sullivan said that events began earlier Saturday when Mike and Brenda Sullivan let Gunner and another dog out of their camper to relieve themselves near the Ladysmith campground, west of the Bernice interchange on Interstate 15, north of Butte. Time passed and the couple could not find the dogs, and they began to call for them from the campsite. Later, Sullivan said, a man in a truck roared up, threw the dog's head at them and took off again. The couple's other dog was apparently unhurt.

According to court reports, Howald said that he noticed a couple of dogs hanging around his tent and shot at them to scare them. But he allegedly admitted to authorities that he chopped off Gunner's head with a chainsaw. Police found blood and fur in his orange truck, reports said. Sullivan disputed that explanation for the dog's death, saying that he didn't believe the dogs would travel the 21/2 miles between his parents' camper and Howald's camping site. He also described Gunner as a friendly canine who liked to run and was no threat or bother to anyone.

"I would have rather found him," said John Sullivan, who said that his mother is so upset by the bizarre event that she is vowing to sell the couple's camper and never return to the forest.

After Jefferson County officials were told of the dog's death, Doolittle said he sent deputies to the site to investigate and stay at the campgrounds.

"They spent the night up there. We knew where these people were camped out and that there were guns involved," he said. He added that the department believes more people are involved, since one or possibly two others accompanied Howald in his truck when the Sullivans saw him.

Howald's arrest came on Sunday following a report of a vehicle accident in that same area. Details are sketchy, but Howald was apparently attempting to pull a stuck truck out with his truck when police approached him. When confronted, Howald allegedly fired shots into the air and was arrested.

"We believe that the person who showed up there to get the vehicle is the one involved with the dog beheading," Doolittle said.

In addition, Howald is facing more charges because he is also accused of hitting a Whitehall boy in the head with a beer bottle, leading to a confrontation with that boy's father that same weekend.

Howald was charged Tuesday with various felony and misdemeanor counts in Jefferson County, including aggravated animal cruelty, attempted animal cruelty, felony criminal endangerment and two counts of intimidation.

Gunner's owner, who wanted to find Howald Saturday night but was urged to wait and call police, is pleased that Howald is behind bars and wants him to stay there.

"I want him to go to prison, to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," he said.

Doolittle said that the weekend's events involving Howald remain under investigation.

Case Updates

A former Butte man was sentenced in Jefferson County district court to two years in jail Wednesday for the macabre killing and beheading of a dog with a chainsaw.
Russell J. Howald, 30, pleaded guilty in January to shooting and decapitating a dog with a chainsaw at a campground near Bernice, north of Butte, in September. Howald then took the dog's severed head and threw it into the campsite of Mike and Brenda Sullivan, reportedly saying, "Here is your (expletive) dog back." Judge Loren Tucker sentenced Howald to the maximum penalty of two years behind bars for the felony aggravated animal cruelty charge.

Family members of the owner of the slain 4-year-old chocolate lab, Gunner, watched the court proceedings, at times struggling to restrain their emotions.

Mike Sullivan said after the hearing he was happy with the judge's decision.

"(Howald) should be behind bars," Sullivan said.

The dog belonged to Sullivan's son, John, who was too upset to be at Wednesday's sentencing hearing. Mike Sullivan said he and his family were traumatized when Howald threw the dog's head into their campsite.

"It's changed us. I'm just glad this is all over now and we finally have some closure," he said.

Before being sentenced, Howald apologized to the Sullivan family and to members of his own family who were in the courtroom that morning. He also told the judge he was remorseful, and pleaded for a suspended sentence.

"I am a good person and I have redeemable qualities," said Howald, who lives with family members in Basin.

Howald's attorney, Frank Joseph, argued during the hearing that his client's grisly actions were fueled by alcohol. Since that incident, Howald has been undergoing counseling for alcoholism and anger management, and requested he be given a suspended sentence, Joseph said.

County attorney Matt Johnson objected to the suspended sentence stating that this crime created tremendous "public outcry." Johnson held up a thick stack of hundreds of e-mails he said were from people around the world outraged by this case.

Johnson noted that members of the Sullivan family were still too distraught to testify during the hearing. The family had been so traumatized that they haven't been camping since the incident, Johnson said.

The judge concluded that the Sullivan family is just as much victims as the dog.

"There is a strong bond between people and their pets," Tucker said.

A relative and a friend of Howald's testified as character witnesses during the hearing. They said Howald has tried to straighten out his life and has been staying out of trouble since the beheading incident.

Tucker also sentenced Howald to total of two years suspended sentence for the misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals, criminal mischief and negligent endangerment.

Howald must also pay the family $350 restitution for the dog.

The judge said Howald could be a candidate for the Department of Correction's pre-release or boot camp programs.

The prosecution pointed out that Howald had an accomplice in this crime, but they haven't been able to locate him and no charges have been filed on this second suspect.
Source: The Montana Standard- July 27, 2006
Update posted on Jul 27, 2006 - 2:09AM 
The grisly nature of the crime has attracted both national and international attention, spurring more than 100 faxes and e-mails to the Jefferson County attorney's office.

Howald, 30, dressed in a dark gray suit, spoke in a subdued voice as he told Judge Loren Tucker he understood the charges and wished to withdraw his previous not guilty pleas. He was accompanied by his lawyers, Frank Joseph and David Vicevich of Butte.

While the public may think that Howald's possible punishment isn't harsh enough, it is set by the Legislature, said County Attorney Mathew Johnson.

''The ultimate crime that the public is most aware of - the beheading of the dog - he did take responsibility for that,'' Johnson said.

On Sept. 21, Howald entered not guilty pleas to seven charges, including: felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and attempted animal cruelty, tampering with evidence, and criminal endangerment and two charges of intimidation, as well as misdemeanor criminal mischief.

Howald has been cooperating with investigators, Johnson said, and other individuals may be charged.

Howald will remain free on bond until his sentencing, which will be scheduled after the pre-sentence investigation is completed, Johnson said.
Source: The Montana Standard
Update posted on Jan 26, 2006 - 12:29AM 
A man accused of shooting a dog and severing its head with a chain saw at a campground near Bernice pleaded guilty Wednesday to one felony and three misdemeanor charges.

Under a plea agreement, Russell J. Howald, 30, whose address has been listed as both Basin and Butte, pleaded guilty to felony aggravated animal cruelty and misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals, criminal mischief and negligent endangerment.

In exchange, prosecutors agreed to dismiss four other charges: one count of tampering with evidence, two counts of intimidation and one count of animal cruelty.

Jefferson County Attorney Mathew Johnson said Howald will remain free on bail until his sentencing. He faces up to 4 1/2 years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Source: Billings Gazette - Jan 25, 2006
Update posted on Jan 25, 2006 - 10:46PM 
A jury trial has been set for Feb. 28 for a man accused of decapitating a family's dog during a camping trip Labor Day weekend.

Russell J. Howald, 29, whose address has been listed as both Basin and Butte, faces a mixture of felony and misdemeanor charges including aggravated animal cruelty, attempted aggravated animal cruelty, tampering with evidence, criminal endangerment, two counts of intimidation and misdemeanor criminal mischief.

The charges stem from a Sept. 3 incident in which Howald is alleged to have shot and then cut off the head of a chocolate Labrador retriever named Gunner, which was owned by a Butte family enjoying a holiday weekend at the Ladysmith campground near Bernice.

Howald is also alleged to have thrown a beer bottle at another camping family as well as fired a gun at a man after an altercation. In addition, he was involved in a vehicle rollover - all in the same weekend.

According to police reports, witnesses said Howald was intoxicated at the time of the incidents.

Howald remains free on $35,000 bond, reduced from the $100,000 set when he was arrested for the crimes by Jefferson County police. A long list of conditions accompany the reduction, including working full time, avoiding contact with the victims including the John Sullivan family of Butte whose dog was killed, not associating with felons, not possessing firearms and being home by an 8 p.m. curfew every night.
Source: Billings Gazette - Nov 25, 2005
Update posted on Nov 27, 2005 - 6:25PM 
John Russell Howald, 30, of Butte, who is charged with killing and beheading a dog Sept. 3 near Bernice, entered not guilty pleas to all seven charges against him in his initial court appearance in Boulder, Wednesday.

The grisly nature of the alleged crimes has attracted international attention, resulting in a flurry of about 100 faxes and e-mails to the county attorney's office from around the country and the world.

District Court Judge Loren Tucker noted the "bizarre" and "violent" aspects of the crime, but reduced Howald's bail from $100,000 to $35,000.

Howald bonded out of jail Wednesday afternoon, according to the county attorney.

Howald and three other men were at a campsite near Bernice when two dogs showed up, according to one of Howald's companions quoted in court documents.

When the dogs would not leave the site, Howald allegedly shot at them, wounding a chocolate Lab.

He allegedly pursued the wounded Lab around the side of a trailer and then into the trees and shot at it a number of times, then came back to the campsite and got a chainsaw and severed the dog's head.

Howald then allegedly drove to a campsite occupied by Mike and Brenda Sullivan of Butte and threw the severed head of their dog at them, saying "Here is your f------ dog back," according to the documents.

Shortly after receiving a call from the Sullivans at 9:18 p.m., the Jefferson County Sheriff's office received two other phone calls allegedly regarding Howald and his companions.

A caller reported that a vehicle, matching that of Howald's, was pulling an orange-colored truck that had been involved in a roll- over out of a ditch, according to the affidavit.

While officers were responding to these first two incidents, yet a third call came into the Sheriff's Department.

The caller reported that the occupants of an orange-colored vehicle and a blue-grey Chevy had thrown a beer bottle at the caller's son, according to the documents.

When the caller approached the individuals, who were described in the documents by witnesses as "clearly intoxicated," to discuss the beer bottle incident, "they began to exchange heated words." Howald allegedly fired a shot when the man turned his back to walk away, according to the affidavit.

Howald is charged with felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty, attempted aggravated animal cruelty, tampering with evidence, criminal endangerment and two charges of intimidation. He is also charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief.

Jefferson County District Attorney Mathew Johnson told the court Wednesday that his office had received phone calls from witnesses who "fear for their safety" if Howald is released on bail.

Kellie Doherty, the Jefferson county attorney's office paralegal, testified that Howald has a previous criminal history including misdemeanor assault in both New London, Mo., and in Jefferson County.

She further testified that Howald had previously failed to make court appearances on charges in Missouri.

Howald had just been terminated from his job Wednesday morning at Montana Resources in Butte for nonattendance, she said.

Johnson requested that high bail be continued, saying that Howald, faces "serious prison time," if convicted.

He noted Howald's "demonstrated history of violence" and the violent nature of the current crimes.

In response, Frank J. Joseph, Howald's defense attorney from Butte, said Howald has been called "an exemplary employee" and described him as being "very much family oriented." Joseph said it was his understanding that Howald's job at MRI was being held open, pending the outcome of Wednesday's hearing.

Howald also financially supports his three children who live out of state, Joseph said, and provides insurance for them.

Both Joseph and Jackie Colombe, Howald's aunt, stated that Howald is part of a "close family" that includes his mother in Butte, as well as great-grandmother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, who live in the Butte-Basin area.

Colombe also identified Howald as a member of the Basin Volunteer Fire Department.

Joseph requested bail be reduced to $25,000 so his client could retain his job and fully participate in his defense.

He noted that no humans had been hurt in the alleged incidents and that Howald's family would be responsible for posting bond money.

If Howald failed to appear, he "would be letting his family down," Joseph said.

Tucker, while reducing the bond, said, "It is hard to fathom the bizarre nature of these allegations." Although Howald's previous offenses are misdemeanors, Tucker said he was concerned because "a certain amount of violence was involved." However, a substantial number of family members are concerned about Howald's welfare, he said.

And "while people are concerned about their safety," Tucker said, there was no evidence they would be in danger.

Conditions of Howald's release on bail, include: meeting weekly with his attorneys; living at his Butte residence; avoiding all contact with witnesses; maintaining or securing a full-time job; meeting a daily 8 p.m. curfew; abstaining from drug and alcohol use or being in their presence; relinquishing all dangerous weapons; and submitting to a search of his residence at any time.

Howald, who does not have a valid driver's license, was also prohibited from driving.
Source: Montana Forum - Sept 22, 2005
Update posted on Sep 22, 2005 - 8:33PM 
Howald will make an initial appearance Tuesday in Boulder on seven charges, six of them felonies. He remains jailed in Jefferson County on $100,000 bond, but his attorneys will ask for a bail reduction at that hearing. When arrested, Howald gave a Basin address.

In charging documents filed in District Court Thursday, Jefferson County Attorney Mathew Johnson accuses Howald of aggravated animal cruelty, attempted animal cruelty, tampering with evidence, criminal endangerment and two counts of intimidation - all felonies - plus misdemeanor criminal mischief.

An affidavit supporting the charges accuses Howald on Sept. 3 of killing and cutting off the head of a dog being cared for by Mike and Brenda Sullivan of Butte. The dog, a chocolate lab named Gunner, belonged to their son, John. The report came in to police after 9 p.m. that night - after the Sullivans fled their camping site near the Ladysmith campground and told police that a man threw Gunner's severed head at them accompanied by an expletive.

The documents further state that nearly a half-hour later, the sheriff's office received another complaint of an accident involving two trucks, one of them registered to Howald. As officers were responding, they received yet a third call, this time from Daryl Rogers, accusing Howald of throwing a beer bottle at his son.

After the men finished a heated exchange, Rogers said that he was walking away when a shot was fired in his direction, leading to the criminal endangerment charge. Rogers also told police that the men involved were "highly intoxicated." Statements given to police pin down Howald's actions involving Gunner. According to witnesses, Howald shot at Gunner and another dog when they came to his tent.

After wounding Gunner, "Russell then followed the dog off into the trees and then came back, got a chain saw, cut the dog's head off and took the head somewhere in his truck," the affidavit reads.

Police later found Gunner's body hidden about 75 to 100 yards from Howald's campsite, and officers also found blood spatter and a bullet hole in the tent and spent shell casings around the back of a trailer. They followed a blood trail from the trailer to a dog's body that was missing its head. Police said the dog had been shot in the gut area at least two separate times. Inside Howald's truck, officers discovered blood.

Howald has retained the Butte law firm of Joseph, Vicevich and Whelan to represent him. Attorney Frank Joseph did not comment on the case itself Friday, but pointed out that there are two sides to every story and Howald's has not been told yet.
Source: The Montana Standard - Sept 16, 2005
Update posted on Sep 19, 2005 - 8:59PM 


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