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By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian
A coroner’s inquest into the death of Justin Banta – the man Missoula police shot to death in April – determined Wednesday that his death was not a result of criminal means.
The inquest concluded that officers responded with gunfire only after Banta fired the first shots, which hit one officer in the leg and chest, sending him to the hospital. He was saved only by a bullet-proof vest.
Seven jurors listened to a full day’s testimony as County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg questioned police, investigators and county officials integral to the case.
In his closing statement, Van Valkenburg called the inquest an “unusual procedure” required by the state of Montana whenever a person dies as the result of actions taken by law enforcement.
“We’ll never know why Justin Banta decided to shoot it out with the police in a ditch,” Van Valkenburg said. “But he is the person that initiated the shooting, and officers justifiably returned his fire.”
Jurors returned their verdict late Wednesday afternoon after less than an hour of deliberation, concluding there were no criminal means in the death of Banta.
The chain of events leading up to Banta’s death began April 15 with a fender bender on South Third Street near Orange Street, from which Banta, 30, fled in his vehicle.
Police responded to the scene, and later found Banta’s vehicle nearby.
An hour after police located the vehicle, Banta was seen taking items from it, and officers again returned to the scene.
This time, Banta fled on foot and was pursued on motorcycle by Officer Shawn Paul.
Other officers began pursuing Banta down Hickory Street, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks and intersects McCormick Park.
Banta then fired at Paul from a hiding spot under a bridge on Hickory Street. The bridge crosses a drainage ditch and is the place where Banta eventually died.
Several other officers traveling along the drainage ditch spotted Banta and commanded him to drop his gun, Paul testified Wednesday.
Officer Rick Stevenson testified that he saw the silhouette of Banta underneath the bridge and was able to make out the gleam of a gun and a puff of smoke just before he was shot.
Stevenson said he fell onto the ditch’s southern bank, rolled onto his back and returned fire with a semiautomatic assault rifle.
Other officers positioned along the ditch unloaded their .40-caliber pistols into Banta, who Dr. Gary Dale, the state medical examiner, ruled was hit with 10 full rounds and peppered with numerous bullet fragments that ricocheted off the bridge’s cement embankment.
Dale testified that the nature of the injuries suggested he was facing officers.
Dale described two of Banta’s injuries where bullets traveled lengthwise through the leg in one case and the arm in another.
“That’s consistent with him shooting at officers,” Dale said.
Sgt. Geron Wade and Officer Mark Blood also were involved in the shooting and testified Wednesday.
They both said they felt as though their lives were threatened by the situation and felt justified in reacting with gunfire.
Blood fired 11 bullets at Banta, then reloaded his pistol but did not fire again.
“I continued firing until the threat was eliminated,” Blood said.
Jurors were better able to visualize the crime scene when Lt. Rich Maricelli of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department showed video footage depicting Banta’s body as well as a 15-minute audio tape of conversation between police officers as the situation unfolded.
Maricelli also played a slide show that graphically depicted Banta’s injuries as well as those suffered by Stevenson.
Banta’s family was present in the courtroom, and Van Valkenburg said they were satisfied with the inquest. None of the family members testified, but they were visibly upset.
Autopsy results did not indicate any drugs or alcohol in Banta’s blood system at the time of the shooting, but a close friend of the man testified that he was distraught in life.
Prior to his death, Banta’s girlfriend had ended their relationship and, as a result, Banta was taking antidepressants.
“The incidents leading up to his death were not at all indicative of the kind of person he was,” said Tobin Walker, Banta’s friend. “He was one of the most peaceful people I have ever met.”
In his closing statement, Van Valkenburg speculated that the man may have wanted to commit suicide by cop, but said no one will ever know for sure.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com