Two Butte-Silver Bow police officers told jurors Tuesday how they tailed a Chevy Suburban with two men suspected in the shooting death of Broadwater County deputy at more than 100 mph on I-90 before gunfire struck and disabled their cars.
One of the officers, Rich O’Brien, said he heard pops and saw muzzle flashes from the Suburban and was able to balance an AR-15 on his dash and fire two shots back before a bullet struck his front left tire and ended his part in the chase.
Unlike Broadwater County Deputy Mason Moore, who prosecutors say was struck first by gunfire as he pursued the suspects on U.S. 287 before he was killed, O’Brien and Butte Police Sgt. Timothy Berger survived the ordeal on May 16, 2017.
“I knew I was very lucky to be alive,” O’Brien, who has since retired, told jurors on day four of the homicide trial of 65-year-old Lloyd Barrus. “I knew the shooter was trying to kill me.”
Berger spotted the Suburban speeding westbound down I-90 from Homestake Pass and gave chase, and O’Brien drove up to 140 mph to catch up between Ramsay and Fairmont, they said.
Troopers and other officers joined the chase, but Berger and O’Brien led the way — mostly side by side — through Anaconda-Deer Lodge and Powell counties before the Suburban went over stop sticks and shots were fired at their cars in Granite County.
At about the same time O’Brien’s tire was hit, a bullet or bullet fragment hit Berger’s windshield and his car lost all power, both near mile marker 135. Many of the scenes and sounds were captured from body and patrol-car cameras that were played for jurors.
The Suburban slowed to around 70 mph after hitting the stop sticks, but traveled another 6 miles on one or more rims before it stopped just inside Missoula County.
Barrus and his son, Marshall Barrus, then exchanged gunfire with troopers and officers from five counties. Marshall was mortally wounded while Lloyd was hit in the hand, dropped his gun and was arrested.
Prosecutors contend they were on a “suicide mission” and two hours earlier, around 2:30 a.m., they provoked Moore by passing him on U.S. 287 south of Townsend and then drove 100 mph.
They say Moore was struck in the face by a bullet through his windshield, his car stopped in the grass just south of Three Forks, and four minutes later, the Suburban returned and additional gunshots ended his life.
Lloyd Barrus is charged with deliberate homicide by accountability, two counts of attempted deliberate homicide by accountability and one count of assault on an officer. Each of the homicide charges carries a possible life sentence.
Earlier Tuesday, testimony was presented indicating the Suburban had run off the road twice near Cardwell about a half hour after Moore was killed, leaving a side mirror and debris that was later matched through exact fits to the suspects’ vehicle.
Prosecutors believe the Barrus’s continued south on 287 after Moore was killed, turned west on Highway 2, overshot its ending by the I-90 interchange in Cardwell, crashed through a fence on that road, turned around and got on the interstate heading west.
Butte-Silver Bow police, like those in other counties, were notified about the officer shooting in Broadwater County, had a general description of the vehicle and believed it could be headed toward Butte.
Berger drove to the Continental Drive ramp onto I-90, saw the Suburban coming down from Homestake Pass, started tailing it and hit his siren and lights near the Montana exit. He had his spotlight on the Suburban and said he could tell there were two occupants.
O’Brien caught up to Berger and the chase continued at speeds of 100 mph to 110 mph, Berger said. After the Suburban hit stop-sticks a trooper had deployed in Granite County, Berger said he could see the passenger move to the rear of the vehicle.
His body cam showed his windshield being struck, believed later to be from a ricocheting bullet, and his car soon lost power. It was determined that a bullet had hit an electrical box in the car.
In O’Brien’s car, an officer over the radio said to shoot back if they took gunfire, and O’Brien got his AR-15 into position with one hand with his other hand on the wheel. When fired upon, footage shows him shooting his rifle twice through his windshield, breaking the glass.
He said when his tire was hit, he lost control of the car and stopped in the median. Berger and O’Brien were so close when their cars were disabled, they met each other on the interstate shoulder after a stream of police cars still in the chase sped by.
Prosecutors believe Lloyd Barrus was driving and Marhsall Barrus was shooting, and Berger and O’Brien both said they believe the driver was keeping the Suburban as straight as possible to give the shooter steadier aim.
They also testified that they continued the chase after shots had been fired at them and would have kept doing so if their cars weren’t disabled. No chances of the suspects getting away could be taken, they said.
“They had to our knowledge just killed another human being,” O’Brien said.
The trial was moved to Butte because of pretrial publicity and began last week. It’s expected to last into next week and possibly beyond.