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Man pleads guilty to shooting 4 people, including trooper

| June 27, 2020 12:25 PM

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A western Montana man who was charged with shooting three people in a vehicle in an apparent road rage incident in Missoula and ambushing a state trooper who was searching for him pleaded guilty Friday to four felony charges.

Johnathan Albert Bertsch, 28, of Arlee pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide for the March 14, 2019, shooting death of Shelley Hays, 28. He also pleaded guilty to attempted deliberate homicide in the shooting of Casey Blanchard, his mother Julie Blanchard, and later Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer.

Julie Blanchard, 52, died in June 2019 from complications of her gunshot wounds, a coroner ruled.

Prosecutors told the Missoulian that Bertsch did not have a plea agreement. He had been scheduled to go to trial on Aug. 17. A sentencing date will be set during a hearing Aug. 31. Bertsch has been jailed since his arrest.

The first shooting may have been a response to heavy exhaust from Julie Blanchard's pickup truck clouding Bertsch's SUV after she picked up her son and his friend at a bar west of Missoula, prosecutors have said.

Julie Blanchard stopped her vehicle when a vehicle behind them began flashing its headlights. Casey Blanchard got out of the pickup assuming the driver behind needed help. He was shot eight times. Hays died at the scene. Julie Blanchard called 911.

Palmer spotted Bertsch's vehicle near Evaro, and when he stopped he was ambushed and shot in the head, face and neck.

Bertsch was arrested about six hours after Palmer was shot. He had two rifles and a handgun in his vehicle, investigators said.

Palmer and Casey Blanchard were treated at a hospital in Salt Lake City. Both men returned home in May 2019.

Casey Blanchard, who is in a wheelchair and keeps up with physical therapy twice a week, said after Friday's hearing he felt a sense of relief following Bertsch’s guilty pleas.

“When we left, I felt some joy out of it,” he said. “It’s another step closer to what we want, and what should happen.”

Palmer has been recovering since the shooting, which left him unable to walk or speak.