By AJ ETHERINGTON, The Billings Gazette
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Deb Klusman was 800 miles from home attending a nephew’s wedding in Arizona when her alarm company contacted her on April 23 to say the interior garage door of her Billings home had been kicked in.
She told the alarm company to call the police. Then the police called her, to warn her not to go home, and ask if she had pets in the house. Soon after, police called again, this time to ask mysteriously if she could provide them a floor plan of her home, and they wanted the access code to her door locks.
Klusman — a 68-year-old widowed, retired school teacher who lives alone — didn’t hear from police again for the rest of the day. She had to piece together from neighbors and news reports that a murder suspect who police were hunting for had barricaded himself inside her home.
Michael McClure was running from police that morning in a stolen van with a woman he had just met, Kristy Chavez. Police chased the pair to the West End, through high-end residential neighborhoods, over curbs and lawns, until they crashed into a parked cargo trailer and ran away. Inside the van, police found the van’s owner, who had been shot dead.
Chavez was quickly arrested, but McClure, armed with a handgun, kept running from house to house looking for a place to hide. At one home, he tried unsuccessfully to shoot through a door lock, and then he got to Klusman’s house on the 4000 block of Ridgewood Lane Court. He kicked through Klusman’s locked backyard gate, then broke through the locked back door of her garage. He at first tried to steal her car, then broke into her house from inside the garage.
By then, with the help of the Yellowstone County Sheriff overhead in a helicopter, police had found McClure and surrounded Klusman’s house with a small army of well-armed officers, some of them inside an armored truck that parked right on the front lawn.
For 10 hours, McClure held them at bay. Inside the home, he rifled through Klusman’s drawers looking for valuables. He ate her food, and then hid out in her attic as police slowly lost patience.
At one point, McClure demanded from a police negotiator a bag of Wendy’s hamburgers and cigarettes. Those items were delivered to the front door by the bomb squad’s remote-controlled robot.
“They sent a robot up my driveway,” McLure told The Billings Gazette. “They gave him Wendy’s and two cigarettes and a cell phone to communicate with them, and I kept thinking ‘Oh my god, he’s smoking in my house.’ ”
When it was over, cigarette smoke was the least of her problems.
Tear gas had been deployed into her home through big holes drilled in her walls from the outside. A flash bomb was thrown through the front door after the door was broken open by a battering ram on the armored truck.
Sensing that police were closing in, McClure climbed into the home’s attic to hide. When officers entered the home, guns drawn, McClure moved to the attic above the garage where he fell through drywall and on to the open garage door. Then came what the police chief described as a quick “volley of gunfire” and it was over. McClure had fired first, a shot to his own head, and no police were injured.
Blood from the gunfire in the garage covered nearly everything stored there. From the outside of the home, holes are still visible above the garage doors from where police shot tear gas canisters into the attic. From the open front door of the house a giant fan, more than a month after the incident, is still venting tear gas.
A restoration company has spent weeks just cleaning the garage.
“They haven’t even touched the house yet,” Klusman said, as she visited the home last week. She’s only been allowed inside her home twice and has been living in a hotel where she might be for six more months as repairs are made.
The Arizona wedding was her first getaway in years and her first real time out since the COVID pandemic began in 2020. While she was away, one neighbor sent her a picture of a cop crouching next to her mailbox and pointing a gun at her home. Another photo showed seven armed SWAT officers stacked up in her backyard near a set of French doors. They were preparing to throw in a flash bomb.
Another neighbor called her to tell her about the body found in the van.
“We were leaving from the wedding and my daughter just happened to look at the news and saw that they had just shot him two minutes earlier,” she recalled.
Officers breached the house late that evening and began searching for McClure, Klusman said. They looked all over the home and even used a heat sensor to search behind closed doors and walls. Police broke down the basement storage room door and the contents of the room were tossed in the search because a heat signature had indicated a body was in the room.
“But it was just the water heater,” said Klusman, describing what police later told her about the day’s events.
That morning her son-in-law, who lives in Billings, met with detectives to go through the house. He took video that showed her home in ruins. Her things were covered in blood and tear gas, and the contents of numerous rooms were strewn across the floor. Some of the damage had been done by the gunman, some by police searching the house for both the gunman and a separate gun they though may link McClure to a separate shooting days earlier.
‘Thank God he got into mine’
Despite the outcome, she was glad about one thing that day. “Thank God he got into mine,” she said, referring to her home, “because mine was really the only one that was empty.”
McClure tried to break into at least three other homes before entering Klusman’s. One of those homes belonged to Kim Vopel, who was home alone at the time.
“I was in my house and I heard a helicopter and I went to my window,” Vopel told The Gazette. She noticed the helicopter was hovering almost directly over her house and wasn’t moving on. She thought back to a story a client had told her about a police helicopter hovering over their home searching for a suspect and she began to feel unsafe.
“So, I thought, ‘I should lock my doors,’” she said recently. “I wasn’t in a hurry, because I didn’t know I was in danger, but I locked my front door and my back door.”
Only a moment later she heard banging in her home over the sounds of the helicopter outside. She locked herself in the bathroom and called 911. Fearing someone was inside the home, Vopel tried to climb out the bathroom window, but stopped when she looked through the glass and saw a small force of cops, guns drawn, out on the street.
Later that evening, Vopel’s son suggested they watch the patio security camera footage, and she discovered just how close her run-in with McClure had been. “I had just literally missed him,” she exclaimed.
The camera footage shows a shadow inside the home move past her French doors as Vopel goes to lock the doors. Seconds later McClure comes into frame, holding a gun to his head, an apparent warning to the sheriff in the hovering helicopter that he would shoot himself if officers tried to stop him. McClure goes to the back door of Vopel’s home and slams his shoulder into it, but the door doesn’t budge. He then hits the door’s window a few times with the muzzle of his pistol, knocking the gun’s magazine loose and onto the ground. McClure picks it up and leaves.
Vopel credits the magazine falling out with saving her life, or at least preventing a hostage situation.
Both women say they experience lasting effects from that day. Vopel, for one, is now more deliberate about locking her doors and some sounds induce anxiety and fear about the gunman.
“Even just hearing a low airplane, or anything, you feel your heart pound,” she said. “I think from now on if I hear a low airplane or a helicopter I will thank the good Lord for protecting me, because it will always bring back that experience.”
Klusman said she needs counseling as a result of that day, but her Medicare insurance doesn’t pay for the service. She tried to call the crime victim’s compensation fund to receive services, but those calls have not been returned.
Shortly after the standoff, police and city officials told Klusman they were not responsible for fixing the home, she said. Klusman’s insurance will cover most of the cost of cleanup, but she is still responsible for the deductible and whatever increases to her insurance premiums result from the repairs.
“The city right away told me they wouldn’t — even the detective who went through with me, said they wouldn’t pay for anything. And, I got a call right away from the city that said, no, they wouldn’t,” she explained. “But, they said they could justify everything they did because you had a bad guy in your house and they had to get him out to keep everybody else in your neighborhood safe.”
Klusman may be living in a hotel for a while. The last estimate she received said it would take six to eight months to make the house livable. Even then, it would not be close to its previous state. Almost all of her furniture will be thrown away. Her late husband’s fishing pole was covered in the gunman’s blood and had to be thrown out alongside almost everything else in the garage.
She has been through the house twice, wearing protective gear and a respirator. One visit was with detective a few days after she returned from Arizona, and a second time with the cleaning company. The first thing she retrieved was her late husband’s ashes. Before she could touch them, the restoration company had to clean tear gas residue from the urn.
People have asked her daughter if she would continue living in the home after the repairs. She just responds by telling them, “My real estate is worth zero right now. I went from having a nice house to one nobody would want to live in. Between the crime scene and the tear gas.”
“This is Big Bear in a house,” she said, comparing it to a separate armed standoff at Big Bear Sporting Goods in Billings on Nov. 4, 2018. She fears, like the now-vacant store, her house will be empty and worthless for years.
Klusman has no intention of selling her home though, and she still wants to live there. She spoke fondly about how much she and her grandkids love her home and she has countless memories there. Her late husband died after a battle with leukemia at 59 while they lived in the home. Before he died he asked his son-in-law to install bars on the rear garage door to make the home safer after he was gone. The gunman kicked in that same door.
“I just want people to know that my house was secure and there’s nothing I could have done to make it safer,” she explained. Klusman had lights on, her yard gate was locked, all of her doors were locked and her alarm was set. She implored neighborhoods to get to know each other and establish watches. “You just need to know your neighbors’ numbers and when they are out of town and you see anybody sketchy in the neighborhood you just make a phone call.”
Her neighbors had initially thought she was home when the gunman broke in. Only a few knew how to reach her, and she has only met some of her neighbors in the weeks since the ordeal.
Asked if she thinks she’ll be back in the house by winter, Klusman longingly responded, “I hope so.”
In the meantime she tries to do what she can at the home even though she is barred from entering until the restorations are finished.
“It’s just been so long,” she said, looking at the well-kept grass, trimmed shrubs and blooming flowers around her. “So, I just come over and work in the yard because it’s the only place I can be.”
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