Marvin Burrell goes to bed each night dreading the inevitability of the reoccurring dream that has haunted him for the last 15 months. He knows that when he closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep he’ll encounter the visage of a wild-eyed man crazy with rage. Each and every night, he says, in his dreams and sometimes when he’s awake, Marvin comes face to face with the man, and he knows what’s going to happen next. All he can do is watch as the events unfold in his mind’s eye: the wild-eyed man pulls a .40 caliber Glock 23 seemingly out of nowhere, levels the semiautomatic big-bore pistol at Marvin and pulls the trigger.
That’s usually when Marvin wakes up, sweaty and gasping and desperate to shake the images from his head. But it isn’t really a dream haunting Marvin’s sleep, it’s a memory. The memory of the night he barely escaped death at the hands of a man he didn’t even know, and for reasons he still can’t explain.
Plains is a quiet town of about a 1,000 people situated on the banks of the Clark Fork River about 25 miles upstream from Thompson Falls in Sanders County. The whole town seems like one big neighborhood, with most of the modest houses nestled between the railroad tracks and the river along quaint tree-lined streets. It’s about 70 miles northwest of Missoula on State Highway 200, though to some who live there it seems like a million miles from anywhere.
The residents of this tight-knit community are kind and generous, and strangers don’t go unnoticed. It’s the kind of town where a gas station attendant strikes up a conversation with customers she’s never seen before and a bartender calls “Hello there!” before the door even starts to swing closed.
It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to encounter violent crime. But in the last three years Plains has seen far more than its fair share of cruel tragedies.
The carnage started in July 2003, when police discovered the body of 17-year-old Steven “Bubba” Ash about 10 miles from his Plains home. Ash had been kidnapped and taken to some woods near Lake Corona, where he was shot twice in the back of the head and abandoned. Four Sanders County locals were later arrested for the execution-style murder.
Last year, the ringleader of that plot, 42-year-old Roxanne Lee Shepard of Plains, was sentenced to life in prison for her role in the murder. Melvin Green, 20, of Thompson Falls, received an 80-year sentence for his involvement. Eli Sayler, then 18, pleaded guilty in 2003 to related charges of aggravated burglary and tampering with evidence and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Then, just days before the first anniversary of Ash’s murder, 23-year-old Aleasha Mae Chenoweth was shot and killed outside her Plains home. Raul Sanchez, 52 at the time of the shooting, was charged with deliberate homicide. Sanchez was convicted in July 2005 and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without parole. (Sanchez has appealed his conviction.)
In the course of a year, this quiet rural town in Western Montana had been turned upside down by two brutal murders. Just a few years ago, some residents were known to complain that “nothing ever happens” in Plains. Today they lament the fact that the world is a changed place, where too many things, even very bad things, can happen without warning.
On the night of Feb. 1, 2005, at about 9 p.m., Marvin Burrell, known to the people of his hometown as Willie, was lounging around his parents’ house when his friend Shawn Marsh called him from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall just a few blocks away. (In Plains, most everything is just a few blocks away.) Willie, 28 at the time, was a single dad and self-described “bar hound” who lived with his parents in the house where he grew up and never turned down an invitation for beers and a few games of pool.
“I didn’t really care much for what was going on around me,” Willie says now of his bar habit. “I had a huge hatred for life and it was always either my way or the highway.”
To the disappointment of his parents, Willie left his 6-year-old son Orion with his grandparents and headed up the street to the VFW to drink beer and shoot some stick. It was a regular routine for Willie, and this night started out like many others.
Willie was sitting at the bar with Shawn when Bonnie Ulrick, a 25-year-old blonde who’d recently moved to town, bounced into the VFW with her friend Ashley Jensen around at 10:30 p.m. Willie had met Ulrick about a month earlier, and thought of her as a casual acquaintance.
“I was just a listener,” says Willie of his relationship with Ulrick. “She was always looking for someone to talk to, and I’d listen.”
Ulrick was upset about a fight she’d had with her fiancé, Keith Wood of Thompson Falls, and she was again looking for someone to talk to. At one point during their conversation Wood called Ulrick’s cell phone and the two began to argue. Willie, along with just about everyone else in the bar, overheard her end of the quarrel.
“There was a lot of people in the bar, and she started making this big commotion loud enough for everyone to hear,” Willie recalls. “They were arguing about something and then she got off the phone and told me that she just broke up with her fiancé. I said, ‘well, that’s too bad.’”
The night wore on and Willie and Ulrick continued to talk over beers. Willie says Wood called Ulrick three or four more times that night as they sat there at the VFW, but by the time they decided to leave the bar Ulrick didn’t appear to be overly upset about her freshly severed relationship. Sometime around closing time, Ulrick invited Willie and his friend Shawn to join her and her friend Jensen for drinks at her house. So the four of them went down the road to a little white duplex on East Lynch Street for an after-bar party.
But once they got there, Willie felt like something didn’t seem right.
“I knew something was funny,” Willie says now. “When you have an after-hours party, usually you have beer there. But there was only one beer in the fridge, so I kind of got the assumption that something was up.”
It was late, but rather than just calling it a night and heading home, Willie and Shawn agreed to stick around and watch a movie with the women. It was a decision Willie would later come to regret.
“I get these gut feelings,” says Willie. “I can’t really explain it…when my stomach starts rolling around, I get this feeling that something bad is going to happen.”
In the early morning hours of that winter morning, as the four sat watching a movie, Willie’s intuitive stomach was “going crazy.”
That’s when somebody started pounding on the door.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Keith,’” Willie recalls. “And I’m like, ‘how the hell did he get here?’”
Wood, 31, worked nights at Spring Creek Lodge, a private behavior-modification boarding school for teens in Thompson Falls. He was supposed to be at work that morning, but there he was on the front stoop of Ulrick’s duplex instead.
Willie says Wood was furious when he walked in and saw the four of them sitting in the living room.
“He was yelling, ‘What the hell is going on here. Who the hell are you?’” says Willie.
Wood and Ulrick then got into a heated argument, at which point, Willie says, Wood started pushing Ulrick, trying to force her outside.
Willie, only 5 feet 7 inches tall but a solid 230 pounds at the time, stepped in.
“I said, ‘hey, you don’t do that to a lady,’” Willie remembers. “I was trying to be a hero, I guess.”
Wood, visibly enraged, stormed out of the house, got in his vehicle and sped away.
“Shawn and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Man, we’re out of here.’”
So Willie and Shawn left Ulrick’s house and got as far as the Sinclair gas station when Willie noticed that his brand-new “hoodie” sweatshirt wasn’t in the truck. In his haste to get out of the house, he’d left it on the back of the couch.
“That shirt cost a lot of money and I didn’t want to just leave it there,” says Willie. “I figured that guy left, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
So Willie left Shawn at the gas station and headed back to Ulrick’s duplex to retrieve his sweatshirt. It was his second bad call of the night.
“I should have just left it.”
It was close to 2 a.m. when Willie pulled into the driveway, strolled up to the door, knocked once and walked in to find Keith Wood sitting on the couch less than 10 feet in front of him. For reasons he can’t now explain, Willie shut the door behind him.
Ulrick was sitting on the far end of the couch looking terrified.
“I just wanted to get out of there, so I said, ‘Hey, dude, can you throw me my hoodie?’” Willie remembers.
Wood turned to look at the hoodie, which was sitting on the back of the couch where Willie had left it. Then he reached around as though he was going for the sweatshirt, but when Wood turned back to face Willie he had a gun in his hand instead.
Willie now thinks Wood must have thought he was someone else, because he said “Fuck you, Tim” before opening fire.
Willie remembers hearing the first shot and the feeling of a .40 caliber full metal jacket slug tearing through his left shoulder. The following few seconds are gone from his memory.
When it was over, Willie had been shot seven times, and had 16 holes in his body. Each of the seven bullets created an entrance wound and an exit wound, and one slug passed through his right hand before grazing his chin and then going in and out of his neck. Because of that, Willie still thinks of himself as having taken eight bullets. One hit him in the right leg just above his kneecap. Another plowed through his left calf muscle. He took three shots to the chest—two in the left lung and one in the right. One slug punched a hole in his liver on its way through his abdomen.
Lucky for Willie, the bullets in the pistol’s magazine were fully jacketed slugs that create clean holes in human flesh like a paper punch, but don’t expand on impact to shred their way through tissue. If they’d been soft point or hollow point slugs, which are designed to maximize killing potential, Willie almost surely would have been dead on the spot.
Willie’s next memory is of standing in the living room, confused and shaken.
“I just felt really dizzy. I looked at them sitting on the couch. His eyes were just crazy looking. I could see the entire whites of his eyes.”
Willie then looked over and saw Ulrick’s friend Jensen lying on the floor curled up next to the stove.
“I looked at her and she looked at me and then she just started crying,” Willie says.
He knew something bad had happened, but at that point he didn’t comprehend that he’d been shot seven times. Other than the brief gap in his memory during the shooting, he never lost consciousness, never lost his feet and never looked down to see his injuries. He simply turned around and walked out the bullet-hole-riddled door.
“I said, ‘I have to go outside and get a breath of fresh air,’” he recalls.
He remembers grabbing the handrail as he stumbled down the front stoop on gun-shot and bleeding legs.
“I felt weird…it was like my whole body was numb,” he says.
He tried getting into his pickup, still not realizing he’d been shot.
“I got up to my pickup handle and the gal came running out there and she’s like, ‘Willie, you can’t drive, you’ve been shot.’”
So Willie lay down beside his truck and ordered Jensen to call 911. At that point, he says, he began to become aware of what was happening around him. He could feel the blood running down his chest. He could hear Wood and Ulrick talking inside the duplex.
“I heard Keith say, ‘Well, is he dead?’” Willie recalls in vivid detail. “And then I heard her say, ‘I think so.’ Then he said, ‘Oh my God. What did I do?’”
At that point Willie says he heard Ulrick say, “Well you might as well do it.”
Willie says the last thing he heard from the duplex was the sound of one more blast as Keith Wood shot himself in the head.
“I wasn’t supposed to live,” Willie says, thinking back to that February night. “I’m a pretty big guy, and I think my body had a lot of strength that these wounds could draw off of, but I think the reason I’m still around had a lot to do with the big guy upstairs.”
Willie says he’s not much of a churchgoing man, but he firmly believes God had a plan for him that didn’t include an early departure from the land of the living.
“Every bullet hole that went through me missed vitals by a fraction of an inch,” says Willie. “I like to think I had some family members who learned to surf on bullets that day.”
Willie is referring to guardian angels when he talks about his bullet-surfing “family members,” but it was flesh and blood family who kept him alive in the agonizing weeks following the shooting.
Willie spent the next three and a half weeks in St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center in Missoula, the first two weeks of which found him playing a tenuous game of tug of war with death.
Immediately following his Life Flight arrival at St. Pat’s, surgeons went to work trying to repair the damage caused by the .40 caliber slugs. Within days Willie had undergone three surgeries to repair the holes in his lungs and his wounded liver. There would be more surgeries to reconstruct his shattered shoulder, but that came later.
Willie was in a drug-induced coma for most of those first few weeks, so he never heard the doctors when they told his family, about 15 days after the shooting, that his lungs were beginning to harden.
“I was basically in the process of dying,” Willie says. “They told my family that they should call hospice and start planning for funeral arrangements.”
Willie’s lungs weren’t getting blood, the bullet holes weren’t healing.
That night Willie’s family members, emotionally drained and exhausted by the events of the previous two weeks, slept soundly in Willie’s room in the intensive care unit while Willie lay asleep in his hospital bed. As his family members dozed around him, Willie says he met God.
“Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up,” he recalls. “I can honestly tell you that I seen the brightest light…I totally can’t even describe it. I seen a silhouette that walked toward me from this light. At that moment, right there, I thought to myself, ‘well, this is it. I gotta cross over.’
“But I wasn’t scared. I felt really warm, like a kid in my dad’s arms again. I felt really safe. Then, all of a sudden there was this really huge warm sensation. I can’t describe it, but it was like breaking a fever, I guess. Then I heard this voice say, ‘You’re going to be all right son.’”
And just like that, he says, the vision ended.
Willie woke up the next morning to find his family with him in the hospital room. He examined all the tubes and wires going in and out of his body: IV tubes, respirator tubes, wires for the heart monitor. Then he heard a crash in the hallway.
“I looked over and saw this doctor looking at me through the open door, and he comes running into the room something crazy,” Willie recalls. “He couldn’t believe I was sitting up in bed. He tried to get me to lay down, but I tried to tell him, ‘No.’”
But Willie couldn’t talk due to the respirator tube in his throat. Willie’s medical team, shocked by his apparent improvement, immediately ordered a CT scan, which revealed that his lungs were showing signs of bruising. That meant they were healing.
Willie’s mother, Marty, couldn’t stay at the hospital. A former registered nurse herself, she had to return to Plains each night to take care of Willie’s father, Bill, who suffers from diabetes.
“One day, all of a sudden, I walked in the hospital and my son was better,” Marty confirms, squeezing back tears. “That same day they moved him into rehab. He went from very critical to intermediate critical to we’re going to rehab.”
Marty says she was so shaken by Willie’s dramatic recovery that she collapsed in the hospital.
“I had gone in there prepared for the worst, and then I walked in there, and they said, ‘Guess what, somebody wants to say hi.’ I just started bawling,” says Marty.
Though Willie provided written permission for his doctors to speak to the Independent about his case, none agreed to do so. Those who replied indicated that the incident took place too long ago for them to remember specifics about his treatment.
Willie and his family say that almost immediately after he was taken off the respirator, Willie began physical therapy. After only 26 days in the hospital, he walked out of St. Pat’s on his own.
A little more than a year after leaving the hospital, Willie is beginning a new chapter in his life. Earlier this month, after a 10-month engagement, he married longtime friend Shannon Browning, a 29-year-old hairdresser from Plains.
“We’ve known each other forever,” Shannon says over breakfast at Benji’s Restaurant in downtown Plains the morning before her wedding day. “He tried picking me up at the bars before, but I wouldn’t have anything to do with him.”
Shannon says she’d let Willie buy her a drink from time to time, and they got along all right, but prior to the shooting Willie cared about little other than himself.
“I was an asshole,” Willie admits.
But almost as soon as he returned to Plains, Shannon saw a change in him.
“You could just see it by the way that he talked,” says Shannon, not quite knowing how to put her finger on it. “He used to be kind of hard to talk to. But now he’s got a better outlook on life. He’s not so angry all the time.”
Willie still suffers from the effects of the shooting—he doesn’t have feeling in much of his right leg, there’s still a lot of pain in his left shoulder. At age 29, he says, doctors tell him he’s living in a 45-year-old man’s body.
At the same time, Willie says the shooting changed his life for the better.
“It really showed me what I have and how I should cherish everything that I have,” says Willie. “It’s brought my whole family closer together…I look at every single day in a whole new light.”
The next afternoon, surrounded by about 100 friends and family members, Willie and Shannon were married in his parents’ backyard (Willie and Orion live with Shannon and her two children now). They exchanged vows under an arbor on a concrete slab that Willie, an avid basketball fan who desperately wanted a court of his own, got for a birthday present when he was a teenager. Looking strong and robust in a western jacket with black denim jeans and a black Stetson, Willie seemed the picture of health and happiness. He showed no signs of the eight gunshot wounds that very nearly ended his life a little over a year ago.
The reception took place at the VFW Hall up the street, within sight of the little white duplex that is the setting of Willie’s reoccurring nightmare.
“When I was recovering, and I was in a lot of pain, my brother once told me, ‘you’re more of a man than I am. I never could have taken eight bullets and survived,’” Willie says, looking at the new door and the patched up bullet holes in the door jamb. “But I don’t like that term, ‘more of a man.’ It doesn’t take a man to get shot eight times. There are real men who get shot once and don’t survive. I was just lucky.”
The memories still haunt Willie. He still wakes in the middle of the night, and sometimes the flashbacks hit him out of nowhere, night or day. But he says the memory, and the realization of how close he came to losing everything, helps him remember what’s really important in his life.
“Every decision you make has a consequence,” he says. “I just hope that people can learn from me. You make a bad decision, you can pay for it dearly.”
Four days after the shooting, while Willie was fighting for his life in a Missoula hospital, Bonnie Ulrick led Sanders County law officers on a high-speed chase from Plains to Thompson Falls. According to news reports, at one point Ulrick jumped out of her car with a pistol and threatened to shoot herself. Then she pointed the gun at officers and chased one with the pistol before eventually shooting herself in the arm.
Ulrick was eventually arrested, and later told police she was so distressed by the shooting at her home days earlier that she’d hoped the police would shoot and kill her.
She was hospitalized for the self-inflicted gunshot wound, received months of treatment for depression, and later pleaded guilty to felony criminal endangerment charges related to the car chase and its aftermath. She was also convicted of felony assault on an officer for waving the gun at Sanders County Reserve Deputy Doug Dryden.
She was sentenced in January to five years in prison on each of the felony charges with the sentences running concurrently. She is currently serving out that sentence at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.
Keith Wood’s death was ruled a suicide, but that last gunshot and the events that followed are now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by his family. Plaintiffs Ginger Hageman, Wood’s mother, and Ken and Christine Wood, Keith’s siblings, don’t believe he killed himself. Keith was left-handed, they say, but when investigators arrived at the scene and discovered his body, he was holding the gun in his right hand and the bullet had entered the right side of his head, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
The suit alleges, among other charges, that the Plains Police Department and the Sanders County Sheriff’s Department didn’t fully investigate the incidents that transpired the morning of Feb. 2, 2005, at 107 East Lynch St., and that investigators falsified documents. Wood’s family seeks $105 million in damages from various law enforcement officials involved in the investigation for the “wrongful death” of Keith Earl Wood. Willie is not named in the suit.