2020 was a tumultuous year for the Missoula County Attorney’s office with multiple high-profile trials that dominated the headlines, along with the complications that the COVID 19 pandemic brought to bear.

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst has released the official 2020 Missoula County Crime Report, and outlined many of the high-profile cases that her office prosecuted.

“Angela and Malcolm Cobbler were sentenced to 10 years each in the Montana State Prison for abusing their two adopted children,” began Pabst. “It's a pretty horrific set of facts. They allegedly locked them up and failed to provide them with food and a toilet. Our prosecutor Lacey Lincoln did a great job work working with social workers and Detective Crocker at the police department to bring those two to justice.”

Pabst also referenced the suspects in the methamphetamine-fueled motel murders that occurred in 2018.

“We also sentenced Jonathan Whitworth and Preston Rossbach for their roles in the execution style murders of Jason Flink and Megan McLachlan, who were unknown to them,” she said. “They just happened to be in their path the wrong place at the wrong time. Rossbach was convicted after a 10 day jury trial and sentenced to 60 years in prison with 10 years suspended, while Whitworth was sentenced to 100 years with no parole for 30 years.”

One of the most high-profile crimes in the past two years was that of Jonathan Bertsch.

“Jonathan Bertsch as well faces two counts of deliberate homicide and two counts of attempted deliberate homicide for allegedly shooting and killing Shelly Hayes and Julie Blanchard and shooting and severely injuring Casey Blanchard, as well as Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer. Bertsch pled guilty to all the crimes he's charged with and is waiting a forensic evaluation, so sentencing has not yet been set.”

Shifting gears to discuss the advances her office has made over the past year in dealing with crime in Missoula, Pabst spoke of programs that deal with criminals and society.

“We take a two pronged approach towards our criminal justice prosecutions here,” she said. “The first prong is bringing dangerous offenders to justice and holding them accountable and protecting society by keeping them away from those that they hurt. However, the other prong at the same time, although it seems contradictory, it is engaging in criminal justice reforms, taking lower level offenders off the criminal justice track and diverting those dollars so that we can focus on the higher risk folks.”

Pabst also referenced a program that originated in her office.

“As you know, we have a prosecution-led diversion program, which is the first in Montana,” she said. “Over the last 12 months, we had 7,564 days of participants in that program. So that was 7500 days where folks were working with Ray Reiser, who's our coordinator, to address the reasons that brought them onto the criminal justice path in the first place and to keep them off of it.”

When the COVID 19 pandemic struck the Missoula area, Pabst said criminal activity shifted with it.

“In late spring, when COVID related restrictions went into place, we started seeing statistically significant increases in interpersonal violence and crimes of endangerment, including strangulation, high speed chases, felony DUIs, and exposing children to dangerous drugs,” she said. “Interestingly, fewer misdemeanors and tickets were filed into Justice Court, and the number of juvenile delinquent cases that we filed was down in part because possibly due to COVID related school closures, the school resource officers didn't have as much contact with kids during the school closure days.”

Pabst said for families in crisis die to criminal activity, help is available.

“If you, your children or someone you care about is being harmed, there is help available in the form of safety planning, housing and counseling,” she said. “The number to the YWCA crisis hotline is 542-1944 or if you're outside the area 1-800-483-7858.

She said increasing drug use is also a pandemic in Missoula County.

“As a community, we must invest in greater prevention efforts beginning with educating our very youngest citizens of the perils of drug use,” she said. “These kind of go together. As leaders, we must make drug treatment available in our local community and drastically increase the number of beds available, and the good news on that front is this grant that we got through Substance Abuse Connect Missoula, where leaders of nonprofits and business and government are coming together to brainstorm ways that we can address our methamphetamine problem.”

On a professional level, Pabst said she has been very busy outside her office in Missoula.

“I've been appointed to the executive committee of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association,” she said. “That's been a really engaging and rewarding thing that I've been involved with. It actually helps us take great ideas that are happening on the national level and bring them back to local communities, and it's also exciting to be part of responding to crises at the national level.”

She has also been a part of several online conferences in the national law enforcement community.

“I participated in a conference that was a webinar that was available nationwide and it was on public trust and early decision making,” she said. “Another really cool thing is that the Missoula County Attorney's office was featured in a book. The book is called ‘To Prosecute’, and it is all about our criminal justice reforms and early decision making.”

Pabst provided one more example of the work she is doing outside her Missoula office.

“I’m going to be on a panel with some members of the Department of Justice; the Bureau of Justice Statistics,” she said. “They've asked me to represent prosecutor’s voices, and we're going to be discussing the importance of data and data collection and using data in driving policy and making decisions, so that's exciting as well.”

Pabst was recently elected to her second term as Missoula County Attorney.

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