Prosecution asks for Life without Parole for Jonathan Bertsch
The first day of the sentencing hearing for Jonathan Bertsch, the man who confessed to shooting two people to death and critically wounding two others got underway on Tuesday morning in Courtroom 1 in the Missoula County Courthouse.
There was an overflow crowd of Montana Highway Patrol troopers, sheriff’s deputies, police officers, and other law enforcement personnel on hand to witness the sentencing hearing, which has been scheduled to last two days.
Bertsch sat between two defense attorneys and viewed evidence gathered by law enforcement of the shootings that occurred on March 14 and 15, 2019.
Deputy Missoula County Attorney Meghann Paddock related the sentencing recommendation to Judge Shane Vannatta.
“On March 14th of 2019, Jonathan Bertsch appointed himself, judge, jury and executioner,” began Paddock. “Casey Blanchard and Shelley Hays went out that night minding their own business. They were at Marvin’s Bar. They had a few drinks, and Casey's mom, Julie Blanchard, came to the bar to pick them up and take them home, but Judge, as you saw, they never made it.”
After pursuing the truck with the victims inside, Bertsch then unleashed a fusillade of bullets.
“He shot that truck 37 times,” she said. “There were 37 shell casings recovered from the scene. When Shelley Hays tried to get out of the rear passenger seat to help his friend who had been shot, the defendant executed him. He shot him in the head. Then for whatever reason, the defendant stopped, put his car in reverse, closed the tailgate, waited for another innocent car to drive by, and then he peeled back out, went through the roundabout, and he got on the highway. He left them for dead.”
Law enforcement agencies converged on the scene, and the search began for Bertsch that eventually led to Evaro, where Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer was the first to confront him.
“Within seconds of Trooper Palmer identifying his car as a suspect vehicle turning left in to that pull out by the Bucksnort on Evaro Hill, the defendant opened fire,” she said. “The defendant shot at Trooper Palmer 20 times, firing rounds into his car hitting him in the head, neck, face and upper torso. 20 times judge.”
Paddock then asked Judge Shane Vannatta for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Judge, each of these people will tell you in their own words, the impact the defendant has had on them, their loved ones and their families,” she said. “The state recognizes that there is no possible sentence that can undo the harm that Jonathan Bertsch has inflicted on these families and their loved ones. There's nothing we can do to bring back the lives he stole, the lives he forever changed on March 14th of 2019 and into the early morning hours of March 15th. But judge, what we can do and what we must do is hold him accountable. He has earned every second of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.”
Bertsch’s sentencing hearing will continue today with more victim statements, and then will conclude on Wednesday, when the defense will present its sentence recommendation.
Following is the entire sentencing recommendation from the prosecution.
Your Honor, a ‘rolling coal’ should not be a death sentence. Neither should being in a truck with someone else while they do that, and certainly not should doing your job as a law enforcement officer for the State of Montana be a death sentence or a near death sentence. On March 14 of 2019 Jonathan Bertsch appointed himself judge, jury and executioner, Kasey Blanchard and Shelly Hayes went out that night, minding their own business. They were at Marvin’s Bar. They had a few drinks, and Kasey's mom Julie Blanchard came to the bar to pick them up and take them home. Judge, you saw they never made it. That burnout in front of the bar’s entrance, a joke to their friend the bartender on the way out, that harmless second of inconvenience for the defendant. That's the moment that changed everything. Jonathan Bertsch flew into a murderous rampage after his car was enveloped by a fairly innocuous plume of diesel exhaust. As the court just saw in the video, he pulled forward, pulled in reverse and peeled out of the parking lot following Kasey Blanchard's truck with which Julie was driving.
That's all it took, Judge, to set this defendant off on a path that killed two people and irretrievably harm two others. As you saw, the defendant followed, he sees truck flashing as high beams on Highway 10 towards Missoula. He pulled up very close to the tailgate following them until Julie turned left onto Butler Creek Road to get away from him. That should have been it. Just road rage. That should have ended the incident. It didn't. He followed them. Julie again turns trying to get away from him turning right onto Expressway. The defendant followed her again, tailgated her and then as the court saw, got into the oncoming traffic lane and tried to push her off the road. Julie slowed down to let him go by. That should have been it. As the court just saw, it wasn't. He drove ahead for a ways pulled off, turned around and waited for Julie to drive by. Then he sped up, caught up with her again flashing his high beams at that roundabout at Expressway and Airway Boulevard right before Lithia. That should have been it. As the court saw it wasn't. When Julie pulled over and Kasey Blanchard got out of the car and came towards the defendant, he started shooting. That first shot as you saw judge hit Kasey Blanchard right in the leg and dropped him right to the ground. He immediately put his hands up, ‘stop shooting don't shoot’. He was unarmed. Any possible perceived aggression from him at that point had been neutralized. The defendant kept shooting he shot at Kasey he went and got another bigger gun on the back of his car. And he started shooting at the truck indiscriminately without any regard or knowledge of who was even in that truck. He shot that truck 37 times there were 37 shells, re casings recovered at the scene.
When Shelley Hays tried to get out of the rear passenger seat to help his friend who had been shot, the defendant executed him. He shot him in the head. Then for whatever reason, the defendant stopped, put his car in reverse, closed the tailgate, waited for another innocent car to drive by. And then he peeled back out, went through the roundabout. And he got on the highway. He left them for dead.
And judge, and perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of this disturbing case, the defendant drove home, calmly went into his home and he armed himself even more. He got more guns. He got more ammunition. He got body armor. He got a bag full of tactical gear, loaded it all back into his car. And he went back out looking for more trouble, looking for a fight, looking to harm people. Tragically, Trooper Wade Palmer found him first. Within seconds of Trooper Palmer identifying his car as a suspect vehicle turning left into that pull out by the Bucksnort on Evaro Hill, the defendant opened fire. The defendant shot at Trooper Palmer 20 times. 20 rounds into his car hitting him in the head, neck, face and upper torso. 20 times Judge, that's not meant to disable a car. And certainly not when you know there's someone sitting in the driver's seat exactly where you're shooting.
We heard the defendant’s conversations with law enforcement once they got a hold of his father's phone. We also saw his real thoughts broadcast by him on the internet to a random group of strangers on a gun forum. ‘I used my guns in rage against some stupid drunks tonight. I'm going to die. I'm going out suicide by cop.’ It was over four hours judge before he was located and apprehended by law enforcement. When that happened he was armed. He had a rifle in his hands and a pistol on his hip. He had left another rifle in the snow a ways back before he was caught. Judge, against all odds Trooper Palmer survived, largely due to the quick reactions and movements of his family in law enforcement. He is not here today Judge because of the lasting physical impacts and harm that the defendant inflicted on him. He can't safely sit through this hearing. His wife Lindsey is here, Judge, and you will hear from her. You will hear statements written by his daughters. You will hear from his extended family members. And as you can see, Your Honor, many members of his Montana Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agency family are here. Kasey Blanchard is also here this morning judge. And as you'll see, he now uses a wheelchair as a result of what the defendant did to him. You will hear a statement from him about how the defendant has impacted his life; his family's life, his children's life. Shelley Hays and Julie Blanchard did not survive. As you've seen, Shelley died that night right where the defendant left him. You will hear victim impact statements from some of his surviving family members. His mother, his brother, his sister, and several of his friends, and you may also hear from the mother of his daughter. Your Honor, as you also heard this morning, Julie did survive. She underwent multiple surgeries. And she discharged to Washington to work with the rehabilitation facility to recover from what the defendant did to her. As you heard, she did not survive that. Your Honor, when Julie passed, she had a bullet lodged in her spine from the defendant that she had been living with that entire time. She'd also been shot in the arm and had been dealing with significant injury from that gunshot wound as well. You will hear from her family members, including a short statement from her father Loren, and her sister Teresa Finley, Several other members of her family are watching but not able to give statements. Judge, each of these people will tell you in their own words, the impact the defendant has had on them, their loved ones and their families. The state recognizes that there is no possible sentence that can undo the harm that Jonathan Bertsch has inflicted on these families and their loved ones. There's nothing we can do to bring back the lives he stole; the lives he forever changed on March 14th of 2019 and into the early morning hours of March 15th . But Judge, what we can do and what we must do is hold him accountable. He has earned every second of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.’
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