Editor Note: 29-year-old Jonathan Bertsch is currently in the Missoula County Jail, where he’s being held without bond. He is charged with one count of deliberate homicide and three counts of attempted deliberate homicide after a shooting spree late Thursday night. Scroll down to see how it all unfolded… and to learn about the conversation police say he had with his dad.
I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time in and around Missoula, Montana, especially being there for work over the past year. Missoula is a large town, home to the University of Montana, a huge logging and mining industry, and tourist attractions involving several ski areas, Flathead Lake near Kalispell, and several Native American reservations.
At risk of sounding incredibly naïve, I honestly didn’t think an event like the one yesterday could happen there. It did, and a Montana State Trooper is critically wounded, a young man and a woman are fighting for their lives with multiple gunshot wounds, and one young man is dead. All at the hands of a single man filled with evil.
We expect violence in major cities and war zones. Missoula is about as far from Chicago, New York City, or Afghanistan as you can get, but this proves that tragedy can strike even in a mountain utopia.
Starting from the end and working toward the beginning, 29-year-old Johnathan Bertsch was taken into custody at 0615 yesterday morning, evidently without event. Montana State Trooper Wade Palmer, 35, was one of several officers looking for an individual in a Cadillac Escalade. The man was wanted in connection with an earlier shooting, and under some of the most dastardly circumstances there are.
Trooper Palmer had located the vehicle parked outside a small bar in Evaro, Montana, just north of Missoula on US Highway 93. He called in that he was taking fire, and then no longer responded to his radio. Another trooper found Palmer shot several times, still seatbelted in his patrol vehicle. He was initially transported to a Missoula hospital in critical condition but was ultimately taken by LifeFlight to a trauma unit in Salt Lake City. He has been with the Montana State Police since 2012, received their highest honor, the Medal for Valor in 2015, and has a wife and two children.
Prior to contact by Trooper Palmer, the suspect flashed his headlights as he followed a pickup truck away from a bar in Missoula. The truck was occupied by two young men and an older woman.
The trio stopped to see if the person needed help, and the man opened fire on their vehicle. The bullets struck Casey Blanchard and Shelley Hayes, along with Blanchard’s mother, Julie, who had driven to the Missoula bar to pick the men up.
Shelley Hayes died from his wounds, and the mother and son were transported to the hospital.
Police found the shooting suspect with the help of his father, after the son called the father and stated, “I had a road rage incident – I think I might have shot a cop.”
My initial observation is the minimalization of his acts as told to his father, given that the man obviously knew what had actually occurred. These were not accidental acts, happening by chance. The suspect was later located sitting in his vehicle at a road intersection near the bar where Trooper Palmer was shot.
This hits home for me in several ways. First, as a law enforcement community member, a state trooper was ambushed and is fighting for his life. His wife and children don’t know if he’ll make it home from the Salt Lake City hospital.
A woman and her son are also dealing with major injuries, and a young mechanic, Shelley Hayes, who thought he’d do the right thing by possibly helping a motorist with car trouble, is dead.
Secondly, although I don’t personally know the Hayes or Blanchard family, I know those communities in Northwest Montana are as close as they can be. I have a good friend in Kalispell who knows these people.
A friend of hers writes: “Tonight, the sick, cowardly 28-year-old Arlee (Montana) man sits in jail as numerous children sit and wonder when their dad is coming home. At least one is faced with the reality of ‘never’…”
Watch your back, hug your wife and kids, and keep your head on a swivel.
You don’t have to be in a war zone or a crime-ridden city for this to happen to any one of us.