MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A western Montana man who responded to a plume of diesel exhaust with a murderous rage was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Johnathan Bertsch, 31, of Arlee pleaded guilty in June to deliberate homicide and three counts of attempted deliberate homicide for the March 2019 shooting that killed two people and caused disabling injuries to two others, including a Montana Highway Patrol trooper.
District Court Judge Shane Vannatta sentenced Bertsch to four life terms after a two-day sentencing hearing in Missoula.
The shots broke out after Julie Blanchard picked up her son Casey Blanchard and his friend Shelly Hays from a bar. The truck emitted a black plume of diesel exhaust as “a joke to their friend the bartender on the way out,” which caused a “harmless second of inconvenience for” Bertsch, who was behind the truck, prosecutors said.
Bertsch responded by speeding after Blanchard’s truck, tailgating, flashing his high beam headlights and continuing to follow the truck, even as it made turns onto other roads. At one point he tried to force her off the road, prosecutors said.
Julie Blanchard slowed down to let him go by, prosecutors said, but he drove ahead, pulled over and waited for Blanchard to drive by, before starting to follow her again.
When she pulled over west of Missoula and her son got out of the pickup, Bertsch started firing, hitting Casey Blanchard in the leg. He continued to shoot at him, then grabbed a larger gun and started shooting at the pickup truck, prosecutors said. Officers picked up 37 shell casings at the scene.
When Hays got out of the pickup, he was shot in the head and killed, prosecutors said. He was 28.
Bertsch then went home, grabbed more guns and ammunition along with body armor and tactical gear, and loaded it into his car, KGVO-AM reported. Before leaving, he told some people on an online gun forum: “I used my guns in a rage against some stupid drunks tonight. I’m going to die. I’m going out suicide-by-cop.”
About four hours later, Trooper Wade Palmer spotted Bertsch’s vehicle near Evaro Hill northwest of Missoula and within seconds, Bertsch shot at Palmer 20 times, prosecutors said, hitting him in the head, neck, face and upper torso.
Palmer and Casey Blanchard both spent over two months in the hospital. Julie Blanchard, 52, died three months later due to complications from her gunshot injuries. Bertsch pleaded guilty to attempted deliberate homicide for shooting her.
“Bertsch’s actions that night forever altered the path that my family was on,” testified Lindsey Palmer, whose husband took medical retirement in July 2020 and was not at the sentencing hearing, the Missoulian reported. “He has handed down a life sentence to each one of these victims in one way or another.”
“I will never be able to play kickball with my boys or stand at my wedding or pick my loved ones up,” Casey Blanchard’s victim impact statement said. “It crushes me every time I explain why I can’t walk or can’t play.”