In the midst of their grief, family members of the 21-year-old man who died Thursday after a shooting involving Missoula Police Department officers are urgently seeking answers about the incident.
Brendon Galbreath was declared deceased at St. Patrick Hospital early Thursday morning, hours after police say he drove away from a traffic stop around midnight, prompting a car chase with officers. The cause of death has not yet been released.
In posts on Facebook, friends and family describe Galbreath, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, as smart, caring and loving. Galbreath’s older brother, Terrance LaFromboise, also said he had been in a pre-medicine program at University of California Los Angeles before moving back to Montana last summer because of COVID-19.
“He was a good little brother. He was a good son. He was a good nephew. He was a good student,” said an emotional LaFromboise in a Friday phone call. About Thursday’s events, LaFromboise said, “I hope people know that it’s not indicative of who he was.”
In a press release, the Missoula Police Department said officers followed the man later identified as Galbreath in a pursuit that ended on Stephens Avenue near Beckwith Street around 1:00 a.m. There, the department said, Galbreath “produced a handgun and fired. The officer returned fire from his departmental handgun. Immediately, officers on scene provided medical aid and called for EMS.”
The department later declined to confirm or deny whether Galbreath was shot by the officer who fired his weapon, citing an ongoing investigation and referring only to the language of the statement released Thursday.
The shooting is being investigated by the Division of Criminal Investigation within the Montana Department of Justice, which will pass the findings to the county attorney’s office for review.
The lack of clarity around the event, including vagueness about the shooting itself, has been especially distressing for members of Galbreath’s family. LaFromboise said Galbreath’s father and mother were first notified about the incident when staff members at St. Patrick Hospital called around 5:20 a.m. to tell them their son had died after being admitted to the intensive care unit hours earlier.
“Why weren’t we notified sooner? Why couldn’t we say goodbye to him?” LaFromboise said.
DETAILS STILL UNCLEAR
Other parts of the story remain murky to the family, even after several conversations with the Missoula Police Department, LaFromboise said. The family said conflicting accounts of the incident have left them uncertain whether Galbreath fired his weapon at himself or was struck by a bullet fired by a police officer.
LaFromboise said he also does not know, and has been trying to find out, how Galbreath might have obtained a firearm. He said his younger brother was not known to hunt or shoot, and that carrying a weapon would have been uncharacteristic of him.
“That’s not who he was. He was a loving, caring, intelligent human being that would not hurt people,” LaFromboise said. “But I also understand when you are in crisis moments that they could turn you into a person that sometimes we don’t know.”
In audio of police scanner exchanges before and after the incident, first published by the Missoulian, a police officer can be heard describing a traffic stop involving a “boy” driving a Chevy Impala. Later, an officer says over the radio, “he’s taken off on me.”
After driving away, Galbreath reportedly failed to yield at stop signs and red lights. Officers can be heard describing the chase over the sound of sirens before the pursuit concluded on Stephens Avenue.
In later clips from the audio, an officer is heard speaking inaudibly, then saying “shots fired, we need medical now.” In another exchange, officers are heard discussing what happened.
“Did he shoot or did we?” one man says over the radio.
“Both,” another officer said.
“Can’t hear you,” the first man responds.
“134 fired and the suspect fired at himself,” said the second officer.
In its initial statement, the Missoula Police Department said the driver in the traffic stop was “suspected of driving under the influence,” but provided no substantiating details. LaFromboise said that if his brother had been drinking, he could understand the urge to drive away out of a general fear of the police.
“Any time that I get pulled over for, like, a traffic stop, I’m sweating bullets, because, one, we’re Native American,” LaFramboise said, explaining his fear of racial profiling and stereotyping.
“I know my brother. I know his character and I know he was probably scared,” he said through sobs.
A YEAR OF HARDSHIP
LaFromboise said part of what kept Galbreath in Montana was the desire to be closer to family after his grandmother died of COVID-19. He opted to live in Missoula instead of Browning, where Galbreath grew up, which LaFromboise said was better than him being further away in California.
“I can’t stress enough. We lost our grandmother, my mom’s mom, like a matriarch in our system,” LaFromboise said. “We also recognized, and we would try to remind him and each other, that we’re going through this hard time and it’s best to be around each other.”
LaFromboise said that though his brother had previously experienced anxiety and struggled with suicidality, he was making plans to continue his life after the difficulties of the past year. LaFromboise said Galbreath was preparing to go back to school and change his major to computer programming.
In the wake of his brother’s death, LaFromboise said he hopes no one jumps to conclusions about a young man they didn’t know.
“I don’t want a painted picture that he had issues, because don’t we all?” he said. “You know, he was a 21-year-old kid.”
LaFromboise said the family will continue working to understand what happened to Galbreath on the morning of Aug. 12. He said he hopes the state law enforcement investigation will be thorough and fair, and help shed light on what took place.
“There are about three or four key pieces that is not adding up to me,” he said. “And I know my brother would take full responsibility for his actions. I’m really hoping the [Missoula police] do the same.”
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally executed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact Friday, finalizing a long-running effort to negotiate an agreement that reconciles the tribes’ historic treaty rights with Montana’s modern water rights doctrine.
Hundreds of public-submitted maps have been filed as the state’s Districting and Apportionment Commission gets to work drawing Montana’s new congressional districts.
This week, hospitals from Billings to Missoula are instituting or preparing to institute a “crisis standard of care” under which medical services and supplies are rationed. While case numbers are still slightly lower than they were last winter during the virus’ previous peak, hospitals are being overwhelmed with COVID patients.