True Crime Thursday – A Small Town’s Loss of Innocence

West entrance to Fuel Fitness

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

This is a post I never imagined I’d write, nor is it one I ever wanted to write.

September 16, 2021 started as gorgeous sunny morning in my hometown of Kalispell, Montana.

The night before had been the first freeze of the season. Still-hopeful gardeners covered tomato plants with blankets. Burning bushes transitioned from green to deep pink. Trees were turning yellow, red, and orange.

Kalispell is not without crime. Thirty years ago, we didn’t lock our houses and often left keys in the ignition. No longer. Still, it’s generally a quiet, safe community.

I drove to my regular morning workout at Fuel Fitness gym on Highway 2. The parking lot is behind the building on the north side. I parked in the last slot at the far end, away from other cars.

The Zumba class takes place in an interior studio with south-facing windows, separated from the main exercise equipment area. The music is loud, drowning out exterior sounds.

In the Zumba class, we never heard the gunshots.

At 11 a.m. the music had just ended on the last song when an employee hurried into the studio. Calm but nervous, she said there had been a shooting in the parking lot and the building was locked down. Police and sheriff deputies were on scene.

More vehicles, with lights and sirens, arrived every minute.

We watched two ambulances and a fire truck scream past the studio windows facing Highway 2.

People in the main gym area were looking out the north windows at the parking lot. That didn’t seem smart so I stayed well away.

Officers filled the lobby and check-in area. More lined up outside the glass wall facing the lot.

Employees moved in and out of the manager’s office. They told us that the scene was secured and there was no more danger but reiterated no one could leave the building.

Rumors and speculation circulated among about 50 patrons as we waited. People called loved ones. I received texts asking if I was safe. A Zumba friend had left her phone in her car. Her sister texted me saying she couldn’t get hold of her. Were we okay? I gave the friend my phone to reassure her family.

After about 15 minutes, the two ambulances left, sirens wailing.

Details dribbled out from people who had witnessed the incident through the north windows.

The alleged killer’s blue truck and black trailer he was living in.

A man had been living in his blue pickup and black cargo trailer in the gym parking lot for a couple of weeks. For $25/month, he could use the gym’s showers and bathroom. But apparently there had been complaints about him.

Later I learned he had previously been living in the parking lot of another gym and had been asked to leave the premises.

On this day, the manager and assistant manager went out to the parking lot and told him he had to go. They refunded his fees. He demanded more money. They refused. He said they were going to die today and pulled a gun.

According to witnesses, he shot the manager. The assistant manager took cover and escaped injury.

A gym patron was in the parking lot, checking on his dog in his truck, when he witnessed the commotion. He grabbed a gun from his truck and ordered the instigator to stop. The instigator shot at the patron who returned fire.

Both the instigator and the patron were wounded in the exchange of gunshots.

Locked down inside the gym, we knew none of these details, only that one person was dead and two were wounded, none of them identified. We were assured there was no further danger but we could not leave because the parking lot was a crime scene.

In the lobby, a man held the leash of a large, tan-and-white pitbull, patting him and talking to him. The dog sat quiet, panting. He was amazingly well-behaved, considering his owner, the Good Samaritan, had just been shot.

An officer announced that they needed witness statements from everyone inside, whether or not they had seen or heard anything. Then, one by one, we would be escorted outside to check for damage to our vehicles and to retrieve personal belongings.

The witness form asked for name, address, phone numbers, date of birth, and information about what we had seen or heard. Mine was easy since I had none.

People milled around and speculated.

Snippets of conversation: How could someone shoot an unarmed guy like that? He was just doing his job. It’s just plain wrong. I hope the manager and the hero are all right and the effing shooter is dead.

The business phone rang incessantly. Employees answered inquiries but couldn’t offer more information.

An hour passed.

My white Toyota is the last car in the line. The black trailer was about 50 feet behind my car.

At that point, I decided it was safe to look out a window to check my car. Yellow crime scene tape ran behind it but it appeared undamaged. However, several officers stood near it. That made me wonder if it had been hit. I told the officer collecting witness statements that my car was at the far end of the lot. She made a note and said she would call me next.

She also said no cars would be allowed to leave the lot because of the ongoing investigation. People who had not witnessed the incident would be released soon but needed to call for rides.

A sheriff detective said I couldn’t go to my car because it was too near the crime site. Since I had witnessed nothing, I would be permitted to leave the area, escorted by an officer.

Perhaps 50 officers were clustered in groups around the lot, talking. That had to be every on-duty law enforcement officer in the county, plus more. At least 20 city, county, and state vehicles with flashing lights blocked the entrance and lined the highway.

The officer escorted me to one boundary of the yellow crime scene tape strung across the parking lot exit. He turned me over to a different officer who logged my name on a check-out sheet. I ducked under the crime scene tape and continued to the exit. Another man approached and said he was a chaplain for the police and fire department and offered assistance, now or later, with processing the incident.

Witnesses being questioned

The alleged killer’s blue truck and black trailer. My car was about 50 feet behind the trailer.

Several hours of uncertainty followed. But, in a small town, everyone knows everyone. Between phone calls and texts, by about four p.m., I had figured out:

The instigator was in critical condition in the hospital;

The Good Samaritan hero was in good condition in the hospital;

The manager was dead. His name was Matthew David Hurley.

Matt was 27 and engaged to be married, always friendly, smiling, and welcoming.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had asked him if he could put up a poster on the bulletin board about a book event I was doing with three other mystery authors. “Sure!” he said. “We love to support locals. It’s all about community.”

~~~

The next morning, the parking lot was cleared and we could pick up our cars. The pavement had been scrubbed of blood stains. The blue truck and black trailer were gone. No sign remained of the deadly showdown.

Matt was right about community.

That evening, a memorial was held in the parking lot. When I arrived, the area was packed with vehicles and about 200 people milled around outside, including Matt’s extended family who had arrived from Missoula.

A bonfire in an oil drum took the chill off the night.

The crowd ranged from a man with long flowing white hair to middle-aged people to young families with kids including an infant less than a month old. Matt’s sister held the leash of his beautiful Golden Retriever who wanted to make friends with everyone, including a dachshund that wasn’t quite sure about the big dog. Coworkers, gym customers, neighbors, buddies, and family—everyone was supportive of each other…and heartbroken.

I learned from a tearful employee that Matt had been killed instantly. She worried he might have been in pain and was reassured he had not suffered.

Someone pointed out the Good Samaritan hero who had been released from the hospital. He attended the memorial with his wife and teenage daughter. I’d seen him working out at the gym but didn’t know him. I learned his name is Will, a serious, unsmiling man in his forties.

He and the assistant manager, who escaped death during the shootout, were deep in conversation. After several minutes, they hugged like two buddies who’d been in the trenches together.

As candles were passed out, a handsome older gentleman asked if he could light his candle from mine. He was Matt’s grandfather. He proudly told me that, two years before, his then-twenty-five-year-old grandson had been promoted from assistant manager at the Fuel Fitness in Missoula to the general manager of the new Kalispell store.

Soon after Matt had started his new job, Grandpa drove 120 miles from Missoula to surprise him. He told the clerk at the front desk he needed to see the manager because he had complaints. Matt hurried out from his office, concerned about an unhappy customer, only to recognize his grandfather, the prankster.

At last, the crowd thinned around Will, the Good Samaritan hero, and I went over to him.

His fast, courageous action stopped the shooter. If Will hadn’t acted, who knows how large the scale of the tragedy might have been with a building full of potential targets.

I said, “Thank you for what you did.”

He doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. But, in the instant our eyes met, we both recognized the life-changing enormity of Matt’s horrific murder on family, friends, coworkers, gym patrons, neighbors, and the entire community that had once been our safe little town.

Will started to shake hands but instead grabbed me in a hug.

We held on tight for a long time.

The life we knew was forever changed.

~~~

Correction: the instigator did not die as I had previously been told. According to the Daily Interlake newspaper:

Kalispell Police Chief Doug Overman said his agency would not release the suspected killer’s name until formal charges are filed. Overman said the department’s case was submitted to the Flathead County Attorney’s Office on Tuesday.

County Attorney Travis Ahner had a brief comment on the investigation.

“Our office is reviewing the initial investigative reports from this incident that have been submitted by the Kalispell Police Department,” Ahner said. “They have kept us updated throughout the incident and ensuing investigation, and I’m confident that the matter is being handled thoroughly and appropriately.”

This entry was posted in #truecrimethursday, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

51 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – A Small Town’s Loss of Innocence

  1. Debbie, thank you for sharing your personal and undoubtedly frightening story. It is tragic, certainly, but you’ve also given Matt and Will a fine tribute.

    I might also note that this is a great piece of writing. Suspense, pathos…it’s all there.

    I will give some thanks today for my comfortable life and its peaceful moments. Thanks again.

  2. Oh, Debbie, I am so, so sorry for your loss. What a frighting event. Loved how you ended the piece on a heartwarming note. Tragedy ripples through small towns for a long time, but the beautiful thing is how it brings residents together, as you flawlessly demonstrated. {{{hugs}}}

  3. Debbie, What’s awful is that your story didn’t shock me. So sad, so predictable. What on earth were politicians thinking as they made guns easily available? What did they *think* was going to happen? Or did they?

    You’re right. Life forever changed. Not just for Matt and his family, but for everyone in Kalispell.

    • The problem was not guns. The problem was mental health and/or addiction, which we’ve not solved, but sanitized by calling them “homelessness.” What were our founding politicians thinking? Probably: “Never trust politicians too long or too much.” Current events, insofar as the MSM let them be known, should not generate trust in any level of government.

      My mother was advised to buy a gun by a policeman. You read about the shootings; you never read about perps backing away with no one hurt when someone drew a gun, as she did subsequently one night, when a young woman went to our house for help while fleeing three men attempting rape.

      And, of course, you never hear when a perp changes his mind about breaking in because he suspects a homeowner might be armed. You only get one side from the press, and it’s far less than half of the total story.

      Guns save lives and prevent other crimes all the time. It’s a cliche and a truism, but it’s accurate: If guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns. And some of those outlaws will be elected officials and their appointees.

      • Thank you, J. We do not hear about car accidents that never happen or houses that don’t burn down or parents who raise their children to become good, decent people. We only hear about the train wrecks in life. The only news is bad news.

        Will is the good news.

    • Hi, Ruth. Just a reply to give another point of view.
      Debbie has been one of my closest, dearest friends for more than twenty years. It is a privilege to know her. I thank God and Will that she is alive today.
      I see this story as proof that sometimes it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. Or knife or cross bow or any weapon. The gun is a tool. It has no power on its own to take or save a life. It is the human who holds the gun that determines that.
      I am grateful to live in a nation where our founders recognized our natural right to defend ourselves and other innocent persons and enshrined that right in our Constitution.
      Evil people will be with us always. That’s a fact of life. But we are all safer when heroes like Will have the willingness and ability to step up and defend their fellow man against the evil doers in this world.
      Will and his quick action, his willingness to put himself in harms way and his ability to use his gun are why many, including my dear friend Debbie, are able to live their lives today.
      I am grateful for that. I hope you are, too.

  4. What a harrowing, heartwarming story–and superbly told. So many lessons to be learned. Squeeze every drop of life out of every day. Good fortune can be reversed in the space of a heartbeat.

    And perhaps the most important is that Good Samaritans are everywhere, willing to risk their safety for the safety of others.

  5. I really do love reading your posts. Very sad to hear what happened but very happy to hear that you’re alright. I wish you well and hope to keep reading your entries for a long time to come.

  6. Thanks, Debbie.

    A scene repeated hundreds of times a year around our beloved country. But, in the micro-bite news stories we’re forced to consume, we rarely get such a personal, up-close version.

    It makes a difference when we do.

  7. Sad situation, Debbie, and a well-told, emotional piece. I sense this was therapeutic to write, and I’m sure it’s going to replay in your mind many times. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Oh, Debbie. What a heart-breaking, riveting story. I’m so sorry for all in your community, especially for Matt’s family and friends. I suspect everyone in Kalispell is changed forever.

    “If Will hadn’t acted, who knows how large the scale of the tragedy might have been with a building full of potential targets.” Thank God for the heroes. And for the police who came in to secure the building and keep everyone safe.

    Stay safe and well.

      • A sad addendum: Collierville is a lovely little township a few miles from our home just east of Memphis. It’s an upscale, pleasant place. There was a mass shooting today in a Kroger grocery store. Thirteen people shot, two dead, one of whom was the shooter. I understand some of the surviving victims are in critical condition. We’ve been checking on friends who live there. So far everyone is fine but in shock.

        It can happen anywhere.

  9. I’m glad you are okay, and almost everyone walked away. My prayers to you and the rest of your town.

    The mentally ill are everywhere, and not all homeless people are harmless. Small towns are no longer Mayberry, sadly.

    A memory of my late father just said loudly in my head, “Cops need to identify themselves and give the perp a chance to stop. If this happens to you, say nothing and pull the damn trigger. Shoot to kill.” He was a fire arms instructor among other skills and a volunteer civilian SWAT sniper back in the days before SWAT was even a thought for most police departments. So right, Dad. So right.

    • Thank you, Marilynn. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a volunteer civilian sniper. Your dad was another hero who stepped up when the need arose.

      • Post WWII, police departments where I live didn’t have SWAT teams. That became more of a thing in the Sixties as Vietnam vets joined the police, and the country became less stable. The local police department knew my dad was trained as a sniper so they had him on their emergency list. Fortunately, he was never needed. He was also a small plane pilot with his own plane so he was called for missing kids and seniors as well as an occasional bank robbery. He did a lot of that before heliocopters became cheap enough for the police and FBI to use.

        • Thank you for reminding us of the days before most of society needed SWAT teams. So much changed in the 1960s starting with JFK’s assassination.

          You also confirmed what I already wrote. Your dad WAS a hero who helped others.

  10. Debbie, thank you for telling this story. My husband was career law enforcement and he had to handle many harrowing incidents in our relatively small county. Almost all the guns confiscated from perps were stolen or bought from another criminal with the serial numbers conveniently filed off.

    This incident vividly explains something tens of thousands of boondockers have been trying to understand, which is why most businesses have shut down their parking lots for overnight stays. The vast majority of boondockers are good people who use solar power and haul their own water so they can ’camp’ anywhere. There are families with small children, couples, singles (men and women), and a lot of them are armed for protection. We have camped in the desert, in National forests, in city parks, and yes, in parking lots. We have never been threatened, but we know people who have been. We took a three-week journey across Canada with our cargo trailer conversion camper, and my husband was extra vigilant the whole time because we couldn’t take a gun across the border. We don’t carry when we take our big camper to public campgrounds, or when we have our grandchildren with us.

    I can’t imagine the mindset that would cause someone to fire a weapon except in self-defense, but I do know that mental illness can exist in every segment of society. I’m sorry for tragedies like this that destroy families and peace of mind. Boondockers, RVers, full-time campers, do not consider themselves homeless. Most have made a conscious decision to embrace freedom and see this beautiful world. Like many other privileges, it’s sad when the majority is punished for the sins of the few. I hope your community can understand this and not think every camper who enters it is dangerous.

    • Thank you for adding another dimension, Becky. Until recently, I hadn’t heard the term “boondockers.”

      Camping is a huge part of Montana’s lifestyle. Most people are as you describe. Perhaps that’s why the business had given this man the benefit of the doubt until he caused complaints.

  11. My sincere condolences to you and your community. In the St Louis area where I live we see on the news daily acts of seemingly random violence that leaves us almost numb to it. It takes a personal, poignant telling like yours to remind us that the victims are real people with real families and real neighbors and real friends. Thank you for sharing this. May your community bind together in healing the way they have in grieving.

  12. Hi, Ruth. Just a reply to give another point of view.
    Debbie has been one of my closest, dearest friends for more than twenty years. It is a privilege to know her. I thank God and Will that she is alive today.
    I see this story as proof that sometimes it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. Or knife or cross bow or any weapon. The gun is a tool. It has no power on its own to take or save a life. It is the human who holds the gun that determines that.
    I am grateful to live in a nation where our founders recognized our natural right to defend ourselves and other innocent persons and enshrined that right in our Constitution.
    Evil people will be with us always. That’s a fact of life. But we are all safer when heroes like Will have the willingness and ability to step up and defend their fellow man against the evil doers in this world.
    Will and his quick action, his willingness to put himself in harms way and his ability to use his gun are why many, including my dear friend Debbie, are able to live their lives today.
    I am grateful for that. I hope you are, too.

  13. I’m sorry for your loss, Debbie, and that of Matt’s family and community. Your piece brings this to life for us. Behind the words you’ve written, I feel the emotional wound you carry. May you and your entire community find healing. And may Matt be remembered forever through the stories his family and friends tell.

  14. Debbie, I am so sorry you went through that and for that sad tragic loss which will always be felt in your community. Having lived in cities most of my life (and currently working in, and living on the border of, Detroit) I have seen a lot and been involved in more than I would have cared to. There are a lot of deeply troubled people walking around in need of our very best efforts. I drove past a scene this morning on my way to work (EMTs hadn’t departed yet and were not in any great hurry so you get the idea). It shook me up and I was just driving by. I am sending you best wishes and healing vibes from Detroit, Margare

    • Thank you, Margaret. Thankfully you’ve retained your humanity and empathy in the midst of constant violence. For years, I lived in a large city and was eager to move to a small community when we had the opportunity. But today you can’t run away b/c it’s everywhere.

  15. I read this tragic story and I had hoped that the usual arguments would be left out of it but I was wrong. Nobody will ever be able to convince anyone that they should rethink their POV. All that happens is the same old talking points get repeated over and over. That is the sad fact in these days. The arguments are set in Hallett’s Ready Mix right off the truck. As the Bard said all those years ago, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
    We are all underlings in this story and as H. Rap Brown famously observed “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”
    My sympathy is for this fine young man whose life was cut short for no discernible reason.

    • Yes, Matt’s loss is truly a senseless tragedy, Robert.

      Violence has been with us since prehistoric times when the first rock was hurled and the first stick was wielded in anger. I don’t see any change in sight.

  16. Thank you for relating your experience. This is a good reminder that bad things can happen even in quiet places. It’s also a good reminder to those of us who write crime that the real experience and the fictional one are different.

    All trauma puts a little scar on us and over time they can add up. I’ve got a few like all of us. Sharing it is a great way to deal with it.
    Bless you.

  17. Dear Debbie,
    Thank you for sharing this tragic experience.We give thanks that you are safe and sound.Thank you God for Will being there to stop this perpetrator.Thank you Founding Fathers for the second amendment.
    You and Tom are always in our prayers.We now add prayers for Matt and his family and your Kalispell community.
    Love,
    Mea and Jim

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