Terrance LaFromboise sings for his brother, Brendon Galbreath, outside the Missoula County Courthouse on Friday, April 29, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers

A Missoula jury on Friday cleared a city police officer of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Brendon Galbreath, 21, after video footage showed the man shooting himself following a high-speed car chase with police. 

The incident began with a traffic stop initiated by Officer Garrett Brown on Great Northern Avenue just after midnight on August 12, 2021. Brown eventually fired his weapon at Galbreath’s vehicle when both came to a stop — the officer’s bullet, later found in the back seat, showed no sign of striking the driver.

The video footage was included as evidence in a coroner’s inquest, a procedure outlined in state law for deciding whether to criminally charge police officers and other public agents when someone dies of non-natural causes while in custody. After hearing from four witnesses, including Brown, and reviewing evidence submitted by the Missoula County Attorney’s office, jurors unanimously ruled that Galbreath’s death was not by criminal means. 

Members of Galbreath’s family have publically grieved his death and have questioned the circumstances that preceded it. At the inquest on Friday, some family members said Galbreath appeared to drive away from the traffic stop out of fear. Terrance LaFromboise, Galbreath’s older brother, said the lack of support for an intoxicated person with mental health issues, coupled with the stress of a police chase, “created the perfect storm for him to take his life.” 

The death of Galbreath, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, shook community members on the reservation and in Missoula, partly because authorities were slow to release clarifying details in the incident’s aftermath.  

On Aug. 12, the Missoula County Police Department confirmed that a man fled a traffic stop in the early morning hours and later died following an officer-involved shooting. The department said an officer fired his gun, but officials did not immediately report that Galbreath also discharged a firearm or that he sustained an injury from his own gun.

The following week, the state Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) said its preliminary investigation of the shooting indicated that Galbreath died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Investigators stated that the the police officer involved in the car chase fired a shot from his own gun “almost simultaneously.” That narrative was borne out by evidence revealed during Friday’s hearing. 

“Now we know going forward, we have to advocate for crisis intervention with our police departments … We’re coming to that point where we have to ask our state for more.”

Terrance LaFromboise, brother of Brendon Galbreath

Those present in the courtroom watched two videos recorded from Brown’s patrol car camera and body camera during the traffic stop, car chase and shooting. Brown can be seen approaching Galbreath’s vehicle and informing him that he was being stopped for a series of minor traffic violations, for which Galbreath can be heard apologizing. When asked twice, Galbreath told the officer he had not consumed any alcohol. According to the body camera footage, Brown asked Galbreath about alcoholic beverages visible in the backseat, which Galbreath said were from the previous night. 

As Brown returned to his patrol vehicle, Galbreath drove away, initiating the car chase through red lights and stop signs. Galbreath’s vehicle was stopped by another patrol officer minutes later on Stephens Avenue near Beckwith Street.

Brown’s patrol car vehicle, pointing directly at the front of Galbreath’s car, captured video of Galbreath pointing his gun at himself and firing. Many people in the courtroom, including Galbreath’s family members, audibly wept upon witnessing the footage. 

After the incident, Galbreath was transported by paramedics to Providence St. Patrick Hospital and pronounced dead hours later. A deputy coronor from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and a state medical examiner testified that the cause and manner of death was suicide from a single gunshot wound to the head. Toxicology reports found alcohol and THC present in Galbreath’s blood.

In his closing statement, Missoula Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings said that the inquest process undoubtedly leaves unanswered questions about the tragic event. 

“Like, ‘why’?” Jennings said. “I don’t know, and you don’t either. And neither does his family. They’ll wonder that for the rest of their lives.”

The inquest was the second of two such hearings scheduled in Missoula this week relating to deaths involving city and county law enforcement officers. On Thursday, a separate jury also found that the sheriff’s deputy who shot Johnny Lee Perry II last year did not commit a crime. Deputy Sean Evans, who is white, shot Perry, a 31-year-old Black man, in the back while he ran away from officers. Perry was carrying a machete but had not approached or tried to injure officers, according to vehicle and body camera footage. A toxicology report later found Perry had consumed THC and methamphetamine prior to his death.

During an inquest, the deceased person and their family are not typically represented by an attorney who is allowed to question witnesses. Members of the jury are allowed to ask questions, and members of the public may also ask questions if they are submitted and approved by the presiding coroner. 

During their respective inquests, family members of Perry and Galbreath expressed grief and frustration that both young men died after police encounters while experiencing mental health crises and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

“Now we know going forward, we have to advocate for crisis intervention with our police departments,” LaFromboise said on Friday. “We’re coming to that point where we have to ask our state for more.”

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.