MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) – A man from West Montana who responded to a diesel exhaust pipe with murderous rage was sentenced on Wednesday to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Johnle Bertsch, 31, from Arlee, pleaded guilty to an intentional murder in June and three intentional manslaughter attempts at a shooting in March 2019 that killed two people and injured two others, including a Montana highway soldier.
District Court Judge Shane Vannatta sentenced Bertsch to four lives after a two-day trial in Missoula.
The shots erupted after Julie Blanchard picked up her son Casey Blanchard and her friend Shelly Hays from the bar. Prosecutors said the truck became black diesel exhaust “as a joke to their friend, a bartender on the way out,” causing a “harmless second inconvenience” to Bertsch, who was behind the truck.
Bertsch responded by speeding behind Blanchard’s truck, hitting the tailgate, flashing its high beam, and continuing to follow the truck even as it turned to other roads. At one point, he tried to force him out of the way, prosecutors said.
Julie Blanchard slowed to get past him, prosecutors said, but he drove on, stopped and waited for Blanchard to drive past before leaving to follow him again.
As he drove Missoula west and his son rose from the stage, Bertsch began shooting by hitting Casey Blanchard in the leg. He continued firing at him, then grabbed a bigger gun and started firing towards the pickup truck, prosecutors said. Police took 37 rounds of ammunition from the scene.
When Hays got up from the stage, he was shot in the head and he died, prosecutors said. He was 28.
Bertsch then went home, grabbed more weapons and ammunition as well as armor and tactical equipment and loaded them into his car, KGVO-AM reports. Before leaving, he told some people at the online weapons forum, “I used my weapons in rage against some silly drunks tonight. I’m going to die. I’m going out for the police to commit suicide.”
About four hours later, soldier Wade Palmer spotted Bertsch’s vehicle near Evaro Hill, northwest of Missoula, and in seconds Bertsch shot Palmer 20 times, prosecutors said, hitting him in the head, neck, face and upper body.
Palmer and Casey Blanchard both spent more than two months in the hospital. Julie Blanchard, 52, died three months later of complications from her gunshot wounds. Bertsch pleaded guilty to an intentional assassination attempt when he was shot.
“Bertsch’s actions that night forever changed the path my family took,” testified Lindsey Palmer, whose husband retired in July 2020 and was not in court, Missoulian reports. “He has condemned the life sentence to each of these victims in one way or another.”
Casey Blanchard uses a wheelchair.
“I can never play kickball with my sons, stand at my wedding, or pick up a loved one,” Casey Blanchard’s victim impression said. “It crushes me every time I explain why I can’t walk or play.”