The Arlee man accused in back-to-back March shootings that killed one man and grievously wounded three people, including a Montana Highway Patrol trooper, seemed meek and somewhat confused during a Thursday court appearance in which he told the judge he needed some extra help.
"I rely on my dad for helping me with stuff outside, like my daily life things and stuff," Johnathan Bertsch told Judge Shane Vannatta. "Could he help me with my case?"
Bertsch is charged in the March 14 and early March 15 shootings that killed 28-year-old Shelley Hays, and wounded Hays' friend Casey Blanchard and Blanchard’s mother Julie, who died in June. Bertsch is accused of later shooting Trooper Wade Palmer, who was part of the dragnet seeking him, leaving the trooper with a traumatic brain injury.
That night and early into the next morning, as medical teams were toiling to save the remaining gunshot victims and law enforcement blanketed the county searching for Bertsch, his father, Burton Bertsch, had attempted to locate his son on behalf of the police, according to court documents. As a witness to his son's case, Burton Bertsch is restricted from speaking to his son about the details of the case.
Thursday's brief court appearance — about three minutes long and made via video link from the county jail — was Bertsch's first since he was charged. The original matters to be discussed at the hearing were put on hold until December due to the overwhelming pile of discovery, the legal term for law enforcement reports and evidence from investigators, produced in the case.
Additionally, Bertsch was without his attorney, Regional Chief Public Defender Jennifer Streano, who had requested the hearing be delayed. Streano told the Missoulian in a phone interview she was not present because she had not anticipated Vannatta would set a hearing Thursday afternoon after pushing the original hearing to December.
That growing stack of discovery had swamped Streano and Reed Mandelko, another public defender working Bertsch's case.
"Even comparing this to other homicides, there is probably 10 times more" discovery to pore through, Streano said. "We just got more discovery today."
Streano added there are additional elements the defense is preparing that were not ready to go before the judge on Thursday.
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For his part, Bertsch said he had not learned in the six months in jail how to reach out to his lawyers anyway.
"I don't know how to talk to my attorneys, though," he told the judge, who asked that Bertsch's questions be redirected to his attorneys.
Public defender Jeff Wilson, who stood in for Streano on Thursday, said he would pass the message along to Bertsch's attorney.
Bertsch is charged with killing Hays, and the attempted killing of Palmer, and Casey and Julie Blanchard. While a coroner has officially determined Julie Blanchard's cause of death a homicide due to complications from her gunshot wounds, prosecutors said in August they need to review all of Julie Blanchard's medical records before deciding to add an additional homicide charge on Bertsch's case.
Casey Blanchard, Julie's son, survived his eight gunshot wounds suffered that night and returned to work on Monday. Palmer, the trooper, also survived a penetrating gunshot wound to his head, as well as gunshots to his face and neck.
Shots rang out around 11 p.m. on March 14 on Expressway, where responding officers found a pickup peppered with bullet tholes. Hays was declared dead at the scene; Casey and his mother, Julie, who had called police, were alive and transported to the hospital.
About an hour later, Palmer located the vehicle authorities believed was driven by the shooter and almost immediately came under fire. Bertsch was arrested about six hours later with two AR-15-style rifles and a handgun in his vehicle.
He remains jailed on $2 million bail.