David James DeLaittre of Three Forks, a 2-year member of the Montana Highway Patrol, was shot and killed in the line of duty Dec. 1 after stopping to check on a vehicle parked in the middle of the road just west of Three Forks.
In an exclusive interview, editor Andy Malby sat down with DeLaittre’s parents, Dennis and Nancy DeLaittre, on Wednesday, Dec. 15, to talk about their son, what happened to him, and the legacy he left behind.
The interview took place two weeks to the day, and nearly on the hour, of David’s death. Denny DeLaittre (pronounced de-LATE) pointed out that grim fact, just one of many things he said that showed the anguish the family is living with and the many little details they call to mind as they try to come to grips with their loss.
Looking at the clock, he said, “It’s been two weeks today, almost to the hour. It doesn’t seem like two weeks. It just seems like yesterday.”
With the events of that fateful afternoon still fresh in everyone’s memory, Mr. and Mrs. DeLaittre consented to an interview, in fact initiated one, because in Denny’s words, they want the public to know the depth of their gratitude for the thousands of cards, letters, calls, visits, well wishes, meals and other acts of outreach from the community of Three Forks, the state of Montana, and indeed the country.
But more importantly, they want people to remember their son, the man they lost at just 23 years of age; to never forget the supreme sacrifice he made; and to know the dangers his peers behind the badge face every day on the job.
The DeLaittres were candid, open and forthcoming during the interview, though it was obviously difficult for them. The story that resulted is an attempt to provide some background about their son and to present some of the family’s thoughts and feelings — in their own words — before, during and after his loss. Some of the material is difficult to read and may not be appropriate for all readers.
For the sake of readability, some traditional stylistic customs have been shelved, such as the use of last names rather than first names on second reference. Also, the family didn’t want to be photographed, so the photos that accompany the story are mostly images from David’s funeral, held Tuesday, Dec. 7.
A key point: As proud as David was of his career, he was equally proud of his community, the Three Forks School, his sisters and his family, his parents said. For the family, making sure David is remembered is paramount. That issue came up three times during the interview, and they were the only times Denny DeLaittre got choked up and had to stop to compose himself.
The bottom line?
“He gave it his all. He went out fighting. He was robbed of his life,” Denny said. “I don’t ever want him to be forgotten.”
Denny DeLaittre was working in his shop on the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 1, when he heard gunfire. He thought it was people shooting at deer in a field across from his house on the southwest edge of Three Forks.
"I headed out to see what was going on, but got sidetracked," he said. "Pretty soon the phone was ringing."
A co-worker called, telling Denny he had seen cop cars -- lots and lots of them and from all kinds of different agencies -- racing toward Three Forks.
Denny asked his wife, Nancy, if she had heard from their son, David, a two-year member of the Montana Highway Patrol, who was working in the area that day.
"David was really good about communicating with us about stuff," said Denny, a former MHP trooper and current reserve officer for the Three Forks Police Department.
"Being that I'm a cop, he would communicate with me, tell me about stuff I needed to be looking for," he said.
This time, though, David didn't call.
"I went and got my gun belt and radio and soon learned that an officer was down and an armed man was at large," Denny said. "I loaded the shotgun and left it with Nancy, and said, 'call if you need anything.'"
Then he was out the door and in the pickup, headed to the scene, just over a half-mile from the family home.
"I rolled up and (Three Forks police officer) Aaron (Baczuk) met me and told me, 'He never had a chance.'"
"David is dead?"
"My guts were turning. Before (leaving home) I was thinking, 'David's hurt, I'm going to go hop in the ambulance and help out.' I came home and broke the news to the family."
"We knew," Nancy interjected.
"They knew already," Denny said. "He would have called. They knew."
* * *
The DeLaittres say they still don't know all that happened. The incident is still under investigation and they haven't learned much more than the public knows, Denny said. They have asked for but haven't received information about what went on in the last few hours of their son's life. But they know he lived a happy and full life up to that point.
In the weeks before he died, David spent several days visiting his grandparents in Billings. His grandfather -- Nancy's father -- is in poor health and the family has been told he has no more than two weeks to live, Nancy said. David took his grandmother out for dinner.
When he returned to Three Forks, the family went out to the Willow Creek Caf, where he ate his favorite meal of ribs. On Black Friday, he went Christmas shopping with his mom, sister and girlfriend.
Over the past couple of months, Denny had spent a lot of time with David, who had recently bought a home and was building a garage and shop with Denny's help.
"David and I were able to spend a lot of time together working on that project," he said.
The night before he died, David talked with Denny on the phone, discussing a January ice-fishing trip they were planning on Fort Peck Lake. It was a trip Denny has made annually for several years. David met him there last year, traveling from Chinook where he was stationed with the Highway Patrol, but he could only stay one night.
"This time we were going for a week," Denny said. "He had asked for the time off. We were talking about going to Fort Peck and catching some fish."
It was their last conversation.
* * *
Nancy DeLaittre saw her son shortly before he died. They passed one another while driving in opposite directions on a street in Three Forks. He made a face at her.
"He stopped his car and made a funny face," she said. "He gave me a real strange look, almost that he was telling me he that he loved me."
An hour later he was dead.
Time of death: 16:20 hours, just 40 minutes before his shift would have ended.
"David obviously didn't have his rabbit's foot in his pocket that day, and this guy obviously did," Denny said.
* * *
While serving with the Highway Patrol in Chinook during his first year on the force, David DeLaittre met a girl. Her name is Brianna Harbolt. When he transferred to the Bozeman MHP district, she came along. They were talking about getting married in a couple of years, after they added onto their home, Nancy said.
"He was trying to work up the courage to ask her dad," she said. "Once I told him I liked her, that was that."
Brianna had been a dispatcher on the Hi-Line when David served there, and after moving to Three Forks, hired on at the Gallatin County 911 Center, Denny said. She was on duty the afternoon her boyfriend was shot to death, and was immediately pulled off the dispatch floor.
"She knew what was going on," Denny said.
Brianna has returned to work at the 911 Center and plans to stay in the area, close to David's family.
"Right now she's going to stay with us," he said. "She is going to stay with us as long as she needs to."
* * *
A slide presentation was part of David's funeral service six days after he died. Three of David's favorite songs played as photos of his upbringing, high school years and time in the Highway Patrol Academy flashed on the screens. One showed David reclining on a lawn chair, a big English bulldog on his lap
Named Laney, the bulldog belonged to Brianna "but quickly became David's dog," Nancy said.
"When he lived in Chinook he would have the dog on his days off, and when he moved back to Three Forks Brianna would visit and leave the dog for him," she said. "This dog went everywhere with David and when people started calling her a boy, he started painting her nails and buying her pink collars and leashes."
The dog, it turns out, was the only witness to the events of the afternoon of Dec. 1.*
"She was in the car," Denny said. "It was the last hour of his shift and he was giving her a treat -- a ride."
Laney remained in the patrol car for hours as agents conducted their investigation at the scene and while 100 other officers launched a manhunt for the suspect, Nancy said.
Like the rest of the family, the dog is having a hard time with David's death. After all, dogs know things.
"She's having nightmares," Nancy said, tears welling up in her eyes.
* According to Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell, there were no witnesses to the shooting.
* * *
Denny DeLaittre joined the Montana Highway Patrol March 4, 1987, just a few hours after his son, David, was born, Nancy said.
"He took that phone call (to accept the position) at St. Vincent's Hospital, where David had been born just eight hours earlier," she said.
Before transferring to Bozeman, he was stationed in Colstrip, where he covered both the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations. In his 10-plus years on the force, he saw plenty of hairy situations, he said. David's death in the line of duty called to mind at least one memory of his own days in uniform.
"I never shot anyone, but I did draw my service weapon," he said. "I had a guy that did pull a gun on me, so I kind of knew what David was going through.
"He pulled a starter pistol by mistake," he said of the long-ago encounter. "He told me afterwards that he grabbed the wrong gun -- he had a .357 that he said he had found on the road and he was just trying to give it to me. I would have been justified in shooting him, but I hesitated. It was the wrong thing to do. But you always think about paperwork, liability, paperwork."
Incidents like that -- like the one in which David lost his life -- take place in seconds, Denny said. But for those involved, they play out in what seems like minutes -- a function of adrenaline.
"Things happen very, very fast, but when you're in it, it's in slow motion," he said.
* * *
"My phone was just absolutely going nuts," Denny said of the minutes and hours after he returned home from the scene of David's death. "People knew there was an officer down and were asking if it was David. At that point (law enforcement) were trying to find the guy."
"The guy" turned out to be Brent Bouldin, 56, who grew up in the area, attended schools in Manhattan, and who had moved back to Three Forks 14 months or so before the shooting, according to authorities and court records. He was "different" ever since being nearly killed by a snakebite in Arizona a few years ago, his ex-wife told the Associated Press after the shooting.
Four hours after the gunfight, authorities found Bouldin dead in his pickup truck in a remote valley 35 miles to the north. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Broadwater County Sheriff Brenda Ludwig has said. He was shot in the gun battle with David and would have died from those wounds had he not brought about a different conclusion.
Denny said he has no reason to believe David knew Brent Bouldin before their fateful encounter -- but Denny did.
"When they told me the name I knew him," he said. "Nancy had rented him a storage unit."
Nancy manages a small storage company with rows of units near their home. She never met Bouldin in person because of an unpleasant telephone conversation, Denny said. She sent her husband to work out the rental arrangements in person.
"At one point he was so rude to her on the phone that she asked me to go down and do the rental agreement," Denny said. "He made one month's payment and never paid again. Months later, the owner asked me to clear his junk out" of the unit.
On the night his son was killed, Denny turned over the rental agreement, including a copy of Bouldin's driver's license and a current address, to officers at the scene of the crime, hoping it would help in the manhunt.
"I don't know how much it helped or not," he said. "I gave them the rental agreement and they went out and checked out the address."
Denny wanted to do something more, but had few options other than to sit and wait for news.
"I've been a cop -- it's been in my blood since I was born," he said. "I was asking a lot of questions. Things go through your head, like 'could it have been prevented?' I wanted answers and some of the deputies told me to be patient. I wanted to be part of the team to take him (Bouldin) down."
He hoped, if even for a moment, that his son's killer would turn into his driveway by mistake. "I thought, 'I'm going to serve the final piece of justice here.'"
Those feelings passed, and as time has gone on, the family is glad it didn't happen that way.
"For the sake of our kids and ourselves, it's a blessing that he did (commit suicide)," Nancy said of Bouldin. "There won't be a trial and the girls won't have to go through that."
THE FIFTH GENERATION
David DeLaittre graduated from Three Forks High School in 2005. Like a lot of kids, he floated around a bit after high school. He moved to Billings. He worked as a mechanic. He moved back to Three Forks. He helped his father with his concrete business. He was a bit, well, aimless, his parents said.
"There was a time when he didn't know what he wanted," Denny said. "I told him, 'You were born a poor white boy; I was born a poor white boy; you're going to have to work.' That's when he aggressively went after a career in law enforcement. I told him the Highway Patrol was one of the better agencies ... there's a lot of good things about the Patrol."
David was proud of his job as a highway patrolman, his parents said. Practically from infancy, he wanted to follow his father into law enforcement, and when he did, he became the family's fifth generation to work in the field.
But it wasn't a career his parents would have chosen for him; in fact, they tried to discourage him.
"I said, 'You know, you can do anything else -- weld, paint, build.' He could build anything. I encouraged him to try to find a job that was 8 to 5, with weekends and holidays off, where you're not answering the phone in the middle of the night," Denny said.
"I very much discouraged him," Nancy said. "I lived with a law enforcement officer; I was constantly worried. I listened to the scanner for years, and until he got home I couldn't sleep."
David assured his parents that he could handle himself, especially with a weapon.
"I was never really worried about him getting shot," Denny said. "He said, 'Dad, I can handle my firearm. I can shoot someone if I have to.'"
No, Denny's concerns were related more to David's kind, gentle personality. He was, frankly, too nice.
"He was a nice kid and you have to be mean and tough," he said. "He didn't have a mean bone in his body."
But when David made up his mind, both parents said they fully supported him. And when he made it through the academy and was sworn in as a state trooper on Nov. 13, 2008, Denny pinned his badge on him.
In spite of David's proud service, both parents say they won't encourage their daughters, who are still of school age, to follow him into law enforcement.
However, Nancy said, "I know that both of our daughters will seek a career that serves others. They, like their brother, are kind and giving of themselves."
* * *
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Denny DeLaittre is seriously considering rejoining the Montana Highway Patrol, a career he left behind a decade-and-a-half ago. It is what David wanted him to do, and he believes it's a fitting way to make sure his son didn't die in vain -- that David is always remembered.
David, who followed his father's footsteps into the Patrol two years ago, wanted his dad to rejoin so they could work together, side by side.
"He was just really bugging me (to rejoin); He wanted me to go back on," he said. "I filled out an application (but) I just wasn't convinced. He wanted me to sign back up in the worst way. He wanted us to work together. Now I wish I would have."
It's that regret, perhaps, coupled with a burning desire to honor David's memory that drives the contemplations.
At 50, Denny knows the career change would be an uphill battle. He has a good job at the Rio Tinto talc plant in Three Forks, where he has worked since he quit the Patrol because it was too difficult to make a living that way. He understands he would enter the service with no seniority and thus no choice in where he would be stationed, or much of anything else. But he's considering it nonetheless.
At first, Nancy was adamantly opposed to the idea. And while it might not be said she's warmed up to it, she will support Denny if that's his decision -- but only if the kids do.
"At first I said 'absolutely not!' she said. "Then I took a look at Denny's capabilities... I would support him. But it would have to be okay with our kids. They'd have to be mentally okay with it."
Denny said he has no qualms about the work or its physical demands, and no fear of doing the job that cost David his life.
"Health wise, shape wise, I can do as much as these young kids," he said.
Even though he left the Patrol 14 years ago, he remains post-certified, so he wouldn't have to undergo a rigorous academy course -- just a six-week refresher. And the money's less of an issue than it was when he walked away from the job before. The family isn't living "paycheck to paycheck" anymore, and MHP pay is somewhat better these days.
"The patrol has worked on that," he said. "They've come a long way. It's still not enough for what these guys do out there, but I could retire in ten years."
Nancy remembers the early years, and not so fondly.
"We just about starved to death the first year" that Denny was with the Patrol, Nancy said. "He made $5.50 an hour. We qualified for free meals at school."
Denny said when a job at the talc plant opened up, it represented a "$10,000-a-year raise, including benefits." It made leaving the Patrol job an easy decision.
"For what you have do out there, it just didn't pencil out in the long run," he said.
Rejoining is a big decision, and though he has talked with members of the Patrol about it, no decisions have been made.
"It's something we're really going to have to talk about," Denny said. "It's a lot to think about. But I have to think about what David would want me to do. He wanted to work side by side. I made a commitment to him to do whatever I can so that he won't be forgotten."
* * *
Meanwhile, the family is doing their best to maintain normal routines. Counselors and others have told them that's the best approach, Nancy said. They stay busy, as they always have, but a week after the funeral, "reality is starting to hit now that the family has all gone home. It's been pretty tough."
For Nancy, the most difficult time is the evening.
"We've got to try to make things as normal as we can, but in the evening we just kind of sit and stare at each other," she said.
For Denny, mornings are the worst. An early riser, he said he looks outside and sees "all the things David and I were going to do this winter ... the projects. It's hard."
Denny went back to work this week, partly to "get my routine back" and partly to keep the paychecks coming in. Before David died, Denny had already used up the year's allotment of vacation time, he said.
"I didn't want to take a lot of time off, financially," he said. "We're going to have some expenses."
The couple's two girls, Hannah, 8, and Rebecca, 14, "area really struggling," Nancy said. They are back at school and have a support network, but "it's really hard.
"David saw them daily and texted Rebecca at least five times a day," she said. "They looked up to him and he was their 'go to' person for advice and help with everything. They're getting support from their friends but the day-to-day things are difficult."
* * *
Shortly after David died, the Montana Highway Patrol established a memorial fund for his family at First Security Bank of Three Forks. Denny has plans for the money.
"I'm going to try to use the memorial fund to buy the land next to the road where David died," he said. "There's a road and a small pond and we could make a memorial park. I've got so many ideas."
Also in David's memory, a bill may be introduced in the upcoming Legislature to make Highway 2, which passes the site of the killing, a memorial highway -- the Trooper David DeLaittre Memorial Highway, he said.
"I just don't want him to be forgotten," Denny said, choking back tears.
If a memorial is built, it will be built for and by the community, he said.
"It's a typical small town; I know everyone will step up and help -- donate labor or money, whatever," he said. "We have a lot of people who want to help."
The DeLaittres also are planning to establish a scholarship fund in their son's honor at Three Forks High School, Nancy said. Those details have not yet been worked out.
For the family, honoring David's memory also means paying homage to the men and women who wear the uniform of all law enforcement agencies.
"I would like people to know that law enforcement officers put their lives out there every day," Nancy said. "They don't know if they will be coming home at the end of their day. The Montana Highway Patrol is not just speeding tickets and traffic accidents. I would like to make Dec. 1 a day where all police officers are given a handshake and a thank you."
Finding a way to thank people for their outpouring of support is hard, Denny said.
"We can't possibly thank this community, the law enforcement community and everyone in Montana for the overwhelming support they have shown us," he said. "There is just no way to ever say thank you."
"We have received so many cards from so many people," Nancy said. "We probably have a thousand cards from all over the country."
* * *
The DeLaittres said they have not had any contact with any of Bouldin's family members since the shooting. They don't blame the family for the acts of their relative, whose ex-wife painted him as a man with mental problems. Nancy said only that she would urge similarly situated families to reach out for help.
"My only request to anyone that has knowledge of family members with mental issues, please don't ignore it -- get them help," she said. "Alcohol, drugs and mental problems should never be ignored, especially when they are maintaining firearms and driving vehicles."