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Chicago-area man pleads guilty to air-traffic facility fire

CHICAGO (AP) — A suburban Chicago contractor pleaded guilty Thursday to setting a fire at a radar facility in Aurora that forced the cancellation of thousands of flights and disrupted travel nationwide in September.

Prosecutors told a federal judge that Brian Howard, 37, of Naperville may be responsible for more than $100 million in restitution. According to a plea agreement, Howard will face at least a mandatory decade in prison. The judge set sentencing for Sept. 11.

Howard stood in orange jail clothes with his legs shackled as he told the judge he was taking an antidepressant. But he said neither the drug nor his underlying condition impaired his judgment in deciding to plead guilty.

Defense attorney Ronald Safer previously said Howard made a “tragic mistake” and the goal was for him to serve his time in a federal prison that offers mental health treatment.

Howard was a contract employee at the Chicago En Route Center in Aurora on Sept. 26 when authorities say he cut cables and set fire to a basement telecommunications room before trying to commit suicide by slitting his throat, authorities have said.

The disruption forced an hours-long shutdown of O’Hare and Midway international airports that day. The center didn’t reopen for two weeks.

Howard was charged with willfully setting fire to, damaging, destroying or disabling an air navigation facility, and using fire to commit a federal felony.

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