MISSOULA — The man who admitted to fatally shooting two people and seriously wounding two others was sentenced in a Missoula courtroom on Wednesday afternoon.
Johnathan Bertsch will be serving life in prison without the possibility of parole at the Montana State Prison for killing Shelley Hays and Julie Blanchard in an apparent road rage incident in March of 2019.
The shootings — which took place in Missoula and Evaro — also seriously injured now retired Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer and Casey Blanchard.
Missoula Judge Shane Vannatta handed down the decision of four life sentences without the possibility of parole following an emotional two-day sentencing trial.
The first shooting occurred on March 14, 2019, when Bertsch shot Hays and wounded Casey Blanchard and his mother Julie along Expressway Boulevard in Missoula. Several hours later, that suspect ambushed Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer after he pulled him over along US Highway 93 in Evaro.
Bertsch — was arrested later that night as Trooper Palmer began the fight for his life which would take him to Utah and back home again in May 2019. One month later — in June of 2019 — Julie Blanchard would die from her injuries. But in November of 2019 — despite his near-fatal gunshot wounds — Casey Blanchard returned to work.
That following June Bertsch would change his plea to guilty and one month later Trooper Palmer would retire from the Montana Highway Patrol following an eight-year career.
Bertsch would later undergo two mental health evaluations, ordered in August and October of 2020 before being found fit to proceed with sentencing in March of 2021.
“Months before this happened, upset about them why’d they do this why’d they do this to me, and he just apparently lost it, finally,” Johnathan Bertsch’s father, Burton Bertsch said Wednesday as he outlined his son’s upbringing, his mother’s suicide, and being bullied in school.
“That’s what started it. This wouldn’t have happened. Even though way overboard what he did. He should’ve never done something like that, and I never thought he would do something like that. Why did he have to bully my son again? My son didn’t do nothing to him, my son didn’t. And all those innocent people my son hurt because of that.” - Burton Bertsch
His sister Julie described violence in the family and said Bertsch changed after he got diagnosed with autism. Also on Wednesday, the defense revealed Bertsch attempted suicide while in jail earlier this year.
“I noted that Johnathan appeared to be easily distracted, as evidenced by him asking what after most questions,” said therapist Jenna Marceau. “He had difficulty making eye contact with me, and I noticed he was squinting a lot while he was looking at me.”
The sentencing hearing began on Tuesday where emotions ran high in front of victim Casey Blanchard and Trooper Wade Palmer's wife Lindsey. During this first round, people gave witness impact statements from the former trooper's daughters to the family of Shelley Hays.
"Bertsch's actions that night altered the path that my family was on and has forever altered our lives. Because he chose to shoot people in cold blood with no remorse for his actions whatsoever. During all of the court proceedings I have watched, I have absolutely seen no remorse. I have no doubt that if this person ever gets out of jail, he will do the same to other families. He has handed down a life sentence to each one of these victims in one way or another." - Lindsey Palmer
Victim Casey Blanchard, his fiancé, and brother, also watched the hearing on Tuesday. Additionally, two courtrooms were packed with law enforcement officers and friends and family of the victims.
Almost all of the people who spoke on Tuesday asked that Bertsch be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Montana Highway Patrol Colonel Steve Lavin issued the following statement in response to Bertsch being sentenced to four consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole:
“The men and women of the Highway Patrol are glad to see justice delivered. The strong sentence sends a message that Montana will hold violent criminals accountable. All the individuals and their families who were impacted by this heinous crime, including Trooper Wade Palmer, remain in our thoughts and prayers.”