TownNews.com Content Exchange

A Montana Highway Patrol trooper was in critical condition Friday and three others were hospitalized after overnight shootings in Missoula and Evaro that resulted in the arrest of one suspect.

Trooper Wade Palmer, who was flown Friday afternoon to Salt Lake City for treatment, was shot in his patrol car after he found the suspect's car near the Evaro Bar and Casino early Friday morning.

When a second trooper arrived at the scene, he found Palmer still belted into his patrol car; the suspect had fled, said a release from the Highway Patrol.

Law enforcement was not releasing the identities or conditions of the three other people shot overnight.

GoFundMe page was started Friday for Shelley Hayes, which said that "he was involved in a Missoula shooting that happened the night of March 14th 2019. He ended up losing his life." The page said Hayes saw a car with its flashers on and tried to help. "Shelley left behind his 6 Year old daughter, his family, his girlfriend and his many friends," it said.

An hour after being posted, the page had raised $1,705 toward $10,000 requested to help the family with expenses.

Johnathan Bertsch, the suspected shooter, was taken into custody in the 16000 block of Thornburg Way south of Evaro at about 6:15 a.m. without incident, according to the Missoula County Sheriff's Office.

Bertsch was booked into the Missoula County Detention Facility at about 1:15 p.m. on Friday, held on suspicion deliberate homicide and aggravated assault. He is 28. 

Johnathan Bertsch

Johnathan Bertsch, 28, was booked into Missoula County Detention Facility on suspicion of deliberate homicide and aggravated assault. 

A motorcade Friday afternoon escorted Palmer from St. Patrick Hospital to the Missoula airport. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox was flying to Utah to meet the trooper and his family, according to Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes. 

Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statement Friday: “I’m heartbroken to hear that a Montana Highway Patrol trooper is in critical condition. You and your family are in the hearts and prayers of Montanans everywhere, we are with you.”

Palmer had been with the patrol since 2012 and was assigned to Detachment 112 in Missoula. In 2015, he was awarded the Patrol's highest honor, the Medal of Valor, for "his heroic lifesaving efforts at the scene of a multiple-vehicle crash involving a mother and her young children in December 2014,'' according to a patrol news release.

Palmer has a wife and two young children.

The mood was somber Friday morning on Evaro Hill as investigators worked the scene where the trooper was shot.

His vehicle was still parked at a pull-off in front of the Evaro Community Center, and dozens of law enforcement officials combed the scene as cold wind whipped over the snow. Multiple bullet holes were visible on the car's windshield and on the passenger side.

Dennis Finnegan, a bartender at the Evaro Bar and Casino, said he didn't hear any shots fired early Friday morning. Because investigators blocked off Highway 93 after the incident, Finnegan had to sleep at the bar.

"I guess one of the other bartenders heard gunshots, because she lives up here, but she's taking her kids to school now," he said.

None of the law enforcement personnel on the scene at Evaro Hill on Friday spoke on the record to the media except to respectfully ask for discretion when taking pictures of a crime scene.

Just before noon, the trooper's vehicle was towed away.

The shootings unfolded around 11 p.m. Thursday when the Missoula Police Department investigated shots fired at a car on Expressway near the Lithia auto dealership. MPD Sgt. and Public Information Officer Travis Welsh said three people in the car, two men and a woman, were taken to the hospital, all for gunshot wounds.

Around midnight, shots were reported near Evaro Hill, triggering a massive manhunt that saw all traffic blocked on Highway 93 North between mile markers 3 and 10 as law enforcement from multiple agencies spent hours searching for a man driving a white SUV, and believed armed with an AR-15 and a .45, according to scanner reports.

"Obviously, our thoughts are with the trooper and Highway Patrol," Welsh told the Missoulian.

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell told the Missoulian his team secured Bertsch's Arlee residence, and removed his grandfather from the property, after learning Bertsch may have been heading north from Missoula Thursday night. It was all hands on deck for the Lake County deputies, assisted by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Police, who set up six surveillance points along Highway 93 hoping to snag Bertsch.

"When a person lives in my county, and does a crime in another county, we want to contain him as soon as we can so he doesn't hurt anyone else," Bell said.

Residents in the Evaro Hill area were warned to lock their doors and immediately call 911 to report any unusual activity.

St. Patrick Hospital issued a lockdown on its facilities from 11:41 p.m. until 1:43 a.m. after reports of a shooting suspect at large. 

Friday morning, dozens of vehicles from the highway patrol, Missoula police and the sheriff's office crowded the parking lot at St. Patrick's as law enforcement officers trickled in and out to pay their respects and to investigate. 

Tara Chevalier, the catering manager at St. Patrick Hospital, came outside with an armful of yellow roses and went from patrol car to patrol car, placing yellow roses on the windshields. 

Eric Klemencic came to the hospital with containers of coffee from Starbucks Friday morning. Klemencic, who works at Cross Point Community Church, said he didn’t personally know Palmer but heard of the incident from a trooper in his church group, "so I came to bring them some coffee.…”

"I just thought they’ve been there all night, I'm going to bring them some coffee and come pray with them."

Klemencic said Starbucks donated the coffee

"Starbucks said ‘How many cups do you need?’ I said, ‘I don't know how many are there.’”

He said Starbucks offered to donate the coffee when he explained the situation.

The Arlee School District notified parents and students on its Facebook page early Friday that all school-related activities, including sports practices, were canceled due to the situation in the Evaro area. 

Highway 93 north of I-90 remained closed for more than nine hours, from 12:54 a.m. Friday until 10:09 a.m., backing up traffic onto the interstate.

Expressway has been reopened to traffic, Welsh said Friday morning.

According to a 2009 Missoulian article, then-18-year-old Bertsch allegedly fled police after stealing gas and, at the end of a pursuit, rammed his car into a law enforcement officer's patrol car, and attempted to gun the vehicle for the officer as well. 

Missoulian reporters David Erickson, Cameron Evans and Kim Briggeman contributed information for this story.


Photos: Missoula and law enforcement respond to Evaro shooting 

This article originally ran on missoulian.com.

Locations