AUGUSTA, Ga. – A Missouri man who pleaded guilty to making threatening phone calls to a Georgia mosque has been sentenced to two years in prison.
In a statement Tuesday, federal prosecutors said 50-year-old Preston Q. Howard, of Wright City, made numerous calls last year to the Islamic Society of Augusta in which he threatened to kill members of the mosque and "blow up" the mosque.
Howard acknowledged committing the acts and obstructing or attempting to obstruct the mosque members' free exercise of their religious beliefs, the news release said.
"Threats made against houses of worship are abhorrent and this Office will work tirelessly to ensure that members of all faiths may worship in peace and without intimidation," said U.S. Attorney Bobby L. Christine.
Prosecutors said Howard's sentence was enhanced because Howard chose his victims based on their religion and "thereby committing a hate crime."
When imposing the sentence, U.S. District Chief Judge J. Randal Hall noted Howard's "disturbing pattern of intolerance of many groups of people."
The Augusta Chronicle reports Hall told Howard that his actions were "terribly offensive."
"Whatever faith you chose — that goes to the heart of who we are as a nation," Hall said during Tuesday's sentencing hearing.
Howard told the judge and members of the mosque who attended the hearing that he was embarrassed and ashamed.
"For each one of you, I apologize," Howard said.
During the seven and a half months he has been held without bond, Howard began to study Islam, he said, adding he understands that terrorists do not represent all Muslims.
Hall pressed Howard, however. What he saw in the pre-sentencing report, he said, was a man of intolerance. "When you're released from prison, who's next?" Hall asked.
Howard responded, "I am definitely not the same person."
Defense attorney Hank Crane had asked Hall to take into account the change in Howard's attitude. Howard had no criminal history and stopped calling the mosque once confronted by FBI agents in August 2017, Crane said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Greenwood asked Hall to consider not only the vile messages left over a three-month period, but also other indications of Howard's intolerance — such as Confederate battle flag stickers covering his mailbox and the sticker of the president with a Hitler-style mustache overlaying a swastika, and similar messages and symbols on his three Facebook pages.
Hall granted the federal prosecutor's request to go above the federal sentencing guideline range of 15 to 21 months. He also ordered Howard to immediately reimburse the mosque members for nearly $30,000 spent to increase security.
Speaking on the mosque's behalf, Dr. Hossam Fadel told the judge that the members refused to let fear take them away from their faith.
Founded in 1976, the mosque has grown into a community that provides food, clothing and medical care to those in need, opened a full-time school and opened its doors to everyone in the community.
"We are part and parcel of the ... community," Fadel said.