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'He was young and dumb and had a mouth on him': What we know about the armed L.A. Pride guy

'He was young and dumb and had a mouth on him': What we know about the armed L.A. Pride guy
Authorities investigate the scene along 11th Street in Santa Monica, where a car was found with weapons, ammunition and other suspicious items. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

It was a random yet chilling discovery.

Just hours after a gunman opened fire at a popular gay nightclub in Florida, Santa Monica police officers stumbled upon a parked motorist with a cache of weapons and explosive chemicals — some displayed openly in his vehicle.

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When asked what he was doing, 20-year-old James Wesley Howell told officers he was bound for the L.A. Pride festival.

As the LGBT community and the nation as a whole mourn the death of 49 club-goers in Orlando, Fla., local investigators say they do not believe Howell's actions were tied to the massacre or that he intended to cause harm at L.A. Pride.

Nevertheless, it remains unclear exactly why Howell had driven from his home state of Indiana with a small arsenal and what, if anything, he intended to do with it.

What is known however is that Howell's past behavior demonstrates a hot temper and penchant for armed intimidation of those around him.

"The boy was young and dumb and had a mouth on him," said Jeremy Hebert, a former Indiana neighbor who was once threatened at gunpoint by Howell, according to court documents.

Howell was arrested just before 5 a.m. Sunday in the 1700 block of 11th Street in Santa Monica. A resident there had called police to say that a prowler had knocked on their front door and window.

Officers had arrived to find Howell sitting in his white Acura. Upon searching the vehicle officers discovered  three assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, ammunition and a 5-gallon bucket containing "chemicals capable of forming an improvised explosive device," police said.

It was Howell who had been knocking, but the resident did not know him, said. Lt. Saul Rodriguez.

Howell was booked by Santa Monica police on suspicion of possessing an explosive device, possessing a loaded firearm in a vehicle and possessing  high-capacity magazines.

According to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller, Howell "remains in state custody while investigators consult with prosecutors at the district attorney's office in Los Angeles and the United States attorney's office to determine whether Mr. Howell will be charged at either the state or federal level in relation to the weapons and other items found in his vehicle."

Howell is being held on $500,000 bond and was scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, according to jail records.

Before his arrival in California, Howell had threatened people with firearms on three occasions, according to court records in Indiana. In two of those incidents, Howell was accused of threatening a man who identified himself as Howell's boyfriend.

The first threat occurred on Oct. 11, 2015, at a McDonald's in Charlestown, Ind., according to court records. When a police officer arrived, a manager informed him that her employee, identified as Richard Hambrick, said his boyfriend had called and threatened to shoot him when he got off work.

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When the officer spoke with Howell, he denied the allegations.

Days later on Oct. 14, officers were called to Howell's residence in Charlestown. When police arrived they were met by Hambrick, who said he had gone to the address to recover some of his possessions. However, when he entered the yard, Howell came out with an "AR rifle," pointed it at him and told him to leave.

"James told me if I stepped foot in his yard, he would kill me," Hambrick told police. Another witness also told police that Howell had come out of the house and pointed a rifle at Hambrick.

Howell told police that he told Hambrick to leave his yard and then grabbed his rifle, held it up on his shoulder and continued to ask him to leave the yard.

"I kept the gun pointing toward the sky up on my shoulder," Howell told police. Other witnesses also told police that Howell had kept the gun on his shoulder and did not point it at Hambrick.

Reached by phone Sunday, Hambrick told The Times that Howell had at least four guns.

"He likes his guns," Hambrick said.

The third incident occurred just one day later, on Oct. 15.

Neighbors reported that Howell allegedly pointed a gun at a resident, according to reports released by the Charlestown Police Department.

In that incident, Howell allegedly emerged from the side of his home with a loaded .44-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and pointed it at a neighbor who was arguing with one of Howell's roommates, according to a Charlestown police report.

The roommate and her husband lived with Howell, police said. Witnesses said the woman stepped outside and accused her husband and their neighbors of insulting her.

The group said they weren't talking about the woman, but that they were talking about a cat that had been poisoned a few months earlier, the police report stated.

As one of the neighbors approached the woman to clarify what they had said, Howell stepped out from the side of the home with the gun and pointed it at the neighbor, the report states.

"It was a large pistol and he drew it from behind his back," the neighbor told police. The neighbor's wife called police.

The first officer on the scene eventually approached Howell and told him he was detaining him until he could determine what happened, the report states. When Howell turned around to be handcuffed, the officer "could see a large revolver protruding from his waistband in the small of his back," court documents show.

Several witnesses corroborated the victim's story and Howell was arrested for intimidation with a weapon and pointing a firearm.

One neighbor told police that Howell "is going to get someone hurt and he needs to quit pointing guns at people," documents show.

Howell was convicted in the incident and sentenced to probation earlier this year, court documents show.

In a telephone interview Monday, Hebert, the neighbor who was threatened, said he was disturbed to hear about Howell's arrest.

"I would have never thought he would go out there to do something like that," Hebert said. "But you just can't ever tell with some people."

Months later, Howell was arrested again, this time in Kentucky for allegedly evading police during a traffic stop.

Howell was stopped on Feb. 25 on an expressway in Jefferson County for a traffic violation, said his attorney, Ryan Vantrease. The officer approached Howell in his vehicle, got his driver's license information, and then returned to his police cruiser.

That's when Howell "gunned out of there," Vantrease said. "There was no high-speed chase, or anything like that," he said.

Howell got away, but police already had his information. Investigators presented evidence to the district attorney who then filed charges against Howell, his attorney said.

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In that case, Howell is charged with felony evading a police officer, reckless driving and speeding.

Robert Boyd, Howell's second attorney in the Kentucky case, told The Times on Monday his client's father and mother are struggling to get details about their son's latest arrest.

"His family is shocked to learn about the situation," he said.

Initially, Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said on Twitter that Howell told one of her officers after he was arrested that he wanted "to harm Gay Pride event." A department spokesman said later the tweet was a misstatement and that although  Howell told investigators that he was going to the Pride festival, he did not make additional statements about his intentions.

Howell's family is "fully cooperating" with federal investigators, according to Boyd.

He added that Howell's family was concerned about the Santa Monica Police Department spreading "misinformation" about their son's arrest.

Details about the case, Boyd said, "may have been blown out of proportion."

"They are very interested to find out the true facts of the case," he said.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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UPDATES:

7:24 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.

This article was originally published at 2:12 p.m.

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