Terrance LaFromboise, left, and his brother, Brendan Galbreath, in an undated photo posted to LaFromboise's Facebook page. Credit: Courtesy of Terrance LaFromboise

After days of confusion and minimal statements from law enforcement, state investigators have initially attributed the death of 21-year-old Brendon Galbreath to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

Missoula Police Department Chief Jaeson White said Galbreath’s family, who transported his body on Sunday to his hometown of Browning, had been notified of the preliminary findings. Galbreath’s brother, Terrance LaFromboise, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Galbreath died in the early hours of Aug. 12, after a traffic stop by Missoula police officers spiralled into a car chase with a tragic end. 

The department initially released news of Galbreath’s death in the context of an officer-involved shooting, describing a scene in which both the driver and a police officer fired weapons. At the time, the department did not clarify which bullet struck and wounded the man, citing an ongoing investigation the department requested from the Division of Criminal Investigation within the state Department of Justice.

In a joint video statement released Monday by the Missoula Police Department and DCI, state Division Administrator Bryan Lockerby said the preliminary investigation “strongly indicates” that Galbreath died by suicide.

“The officer reported seeing the driver, still seated, raising up a handgun, coinciding with the officer bringing his duty weapon towards the threat,” Lockerby said, reading a prepared statement. “The subsequent series of events took place in a matter of seconds, almost simultaneously, as the driver’s gun discharged in the car.”

“It’s important that this be done right. We owe that to Brendon’s family, the Missoula community, and to the Missoula Police Department who requested us to conduct an outside investigation for them.”

DCI administrator Bryan Lockerby

Lockerby said the officer “perceived that he was being shot at, and returned fire with one shot.”

“From our initial assessment, which is corroborated by dash-cam video, Brendon Galbreath died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound that night,” Lockerby explained. “The shot fired by the officer struck Brendon’s car and was recovered at the scene. It did not strike Brendon.”

The investigation remains unfinished and in its early stages, Lockery cautioned, urging the Missoula community to have patience as investigators begin combing through toxicology reports, dashcam and bodycam video evidence, and autopsy results in an effort to reconstruct the events of the night.

“It’s important that this be done right. We owe that to Brendon’s family, the Missoula community, and to the Missoula Police Department who requested us to conduct an outside investigation for them,” Lockerby said.

The early description of the incident began with Galbreath being pulled over on Missoula’s Great Northern Avenue shortly after midnight. While details of the stop and any interaction between the police officer and Galbreath remain undisclosed, police scanner audio first published by the Missoulian depicts an officer saying “he’s taken off on me,” apparently referring to Galbreath driving away.

Officers communicated over radio as they pursued Galbreath in their vehicles with sirens blaring until police brought the chase to an end on Stephens Avenue close to 1 a.m. Soon after, shots were fired. 

The police department has said that officers on the scene provided medical assistance and called for Emergency Medical Services. Galbreath was transported to St. Patrick Hospital, where he later died.

Even after Monday’s announcement, many details of the incident remain publicly unknown. In a Friday interview with Montana Free Press, LaFromboise said Galbreath’s parents were not aware of their son’s hospital admission until medical staff called to tell them he had died. LaFromboise said that call came in around 5:20 a.m., roughly three hours after Galbreath had reportedly been admitted to the intensive care unit.

Missoula EMS and the Missoula Police Department have declined to say when Galbreath was transported to the hospital. 

LaFromboise previously said that uncertainty about the events leading up to Galbreath’s death has been particularly devastating for family members who are mourning the loss of a family member they describe as kind, smart and caring.

Galbreath began attending UCLA to study pre-med in 2018 after graduating from high school in Browning. Photos posted on Facebook since his death show him beaming next to First Lady Michelle Obama, his family members, and former Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. 

Brendon Galbreath, second from right, stands with former Gov. Steve Bullock, left, and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, right. Credit: Photo courtesy of Terrance LaFromboise

Having returned to Montana in the summer of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, LaFromboise said, Brendon was making plans to return to UCLA. LaFromboise said his younger brother had experienced anxiety and suicidality, but stressed that he was loved and supported by his family and preparing for the next parts of his life.

LaFromboise said his family was struggling to understand why Galbreath was reportedly carrying a firearm, and how he obtained it. 

“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.”

Lockerby announced that DCI will not be making any additional public statements as the investigation continues.

“Our agency makes no assumptions and draws no conclusions. We gather facts and produce a comprehensive investigative report,” Lockerby said, adding that the division’s final report will be delivered to the Missoula County attorney. After that, he said, the case will “likely” become a coroner’s inquest

“The evidence and information we gathered during this tragic event will then be available as a matter of public record,” he said. “In the meantime, the evidence is classified as criminal justice information and will not be released.”

latest stories

Interior Secretary signs CSKT water compact

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.

Montana hospitals in ‘dire’ straits as COVID rages

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.

Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.