News & Features

‘The System Didn’t Work’

Authorities question how a felon with mental health issues finds time to prepare for a manhunt

David Burgert, the subject of a large manhunt that has attracted national attention, has been actively moving around Montana since March of 2010, looking for employment, checking in with probation officers and, at some point, preparing for a showdown with law enforcement.

Some authorities are wondering whether Burgert, given his history and diagnosed mental condition, should have ever had the opportunity to set off a manhunt in the first place.

On the afternoon of June 12, Burgert, armed with a handgun and wearing a fanny pack, led Missoula County sheriff’s deputies on a low-speed car chase into the mountains outside of Lolo, casually waved at patrons of a saloon as he passed and then stopped to fire his gun at the deputies before fleeing into the woods. Deputies, who returned fire, had responded to a report of Burgert’s Jeep Cherokee parked for a prolonged period of time at a picnic area.

According to law officials, Burgert knew what he was doing and had a plan. He was ready for a confrontation, with at least one other car stashed away, along with caches of ammunition, food and camping gear. The car he abandoned also contained ammunition. Burgert, who a Missoula undersheriff described as armed and “extremely dangerous,” is prohibited from possessing firearms.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said he was “surprised” to see Burgert in yet another armed confrontation with law enforcement so soon after his prison sentence. As undersheriff beneath former Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont in 2002, Curry was involved in an all-night chase and standoff with Burgert that led to his weapons charges, among other incidents.

“I guess sometimes the system works,” Curry said, “and sometimes the system doesn’t work. The system didn’t work here.”

Curry says he doesn’t blame probation officers, who are often overstretched, but rather expresses concern over a justice system that, from the courts to the overcrowded jails to post-release supervision, allows criminals like Burgert to repeatedly incite violence.

“The cold reality of it is that it’s just not really possible to supervise them all the time, whether we like it or not,” Curry said. “I guess I don’t have a solution. The system is what the system is.”

Burgert, 47, is on federal probation stemming from multiple felony weapon convictions and has been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and psychotic features, among other disorders. He served eight years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons before being released to Montana on probation in March 2010.

Burgert is also on state probation because of a bail-jumping charge in 2002. Additionally, he has a documented history of burglary and other run-ins with the law.

Pam Bunke, administrator of adult community corrections with the Montana Department of Corrections, said Burgert was transferred to Missoula in March 2010. Though it’s been reported he was taken to a prerelease center, Bunke said she has no records to verify that. Instead, records indicate he was placed under probation.

According to the Department of Corrections, Burgert moved from Missoula to Miles City in June of last year, back to Missoula in August, then over to Glendive in May of this year and finally to Missoula again on June 7. He fired at deputies on June 12.

Burgert has remained under both federal and state probation throughout his time in Montana. Bunke’s department only keeps track of his state probation. He has a separate federal probation officer.

“He got his authorized travel permits to move within the state and he had permission to do all of those things,” Bunke said.

Bunke said Burgert maintained “steady contact” with his state probation officer, “either by phone or office contact and sometimes requesting travel permits and providing monthly reports.”

Records show that Burgert actively tried to find employment, including one attempt in Richey that didn’t pan out. In Glendive, after his transfer in May, Bunke said a federal probation officer confirmed that he got a job with a rancher.

“It looks like he tried to hold employment, but he didn’t do well with that,” Bunke said.

Karen Redmond, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in Washington D.C., said she couldn’t offer specific details of Burgert’s federal probation, but confirmed that he “complied with the conditions” of his supervised release.

“That includes the special conditions that he have no contact with former associates and that he not enter Flathead County,” she said, adding that a probation officer conducted home visits.

“They may have drug testing and counseling, but I have no way of knowing and can’t tell you if Mr. Burgert did,” Redmond said.

At the time of the 2002 standoff with Flathead County authorities, Burgert was the leader of a militant group called Project 7 that had allegedly stockpiled weapons and planned to assassinate local officials, then overthrow the federal government. Curry said he was one of the group’s targets.

Dupont, the former sheriff who is now a Flathead County commissioner, said it’s rare for criminals of Burgert’s disposition and mental condition to be successfully rehabilitated. He had concerns when the FBI informed him that Burgert was being transferred to Missoula.

“You have to keep people like him locked up,” Dupont, who was also on Project 7’s alleged hit list, said. “This could have been prevented if you kept him locked up.”

“Dave Burgert is a sociopath; he’s a sociopath by any definition,” he added. “People like that are almost impossible to change.”

Beginning on June 12, Burgert eluded the intense coordinated search efforts of multiple authorities, including the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, FBI and U.S. Marshals. Not even sophisticated aircraft could locate the 6-2, 230-pound man bounding through the forest. The search was scaled down the third day.

As of June 20 when the Beacon went to press, Burgert still had not been located.

Dupont wasn’t surprised by Burgert’s craftiness. Before Burgert was sent to prison in 2003, Dupont had many run-ins with him as sheriff, including pursuits through the woods. Burgert is a well-trained “survivalist,” Dupont said.

“He has studied survival; he knows how to do this,” Dupont said. “He can live out in the wilderness.”

Dupont recalled one incident that occurred after Burgert faked his own death and was discovered to be hiding in the woods. Outside of his campsite, Burgert had set up snare traps with trip wires that set off a shotgun blast when activated, Dupont said.

“That’s the caliber this guy is – he’s just a kook,” Dupont said. “What would happen if a family was out there snowshoeing?”

Last week, Dupont predicted officials wouldn’t be able to track Burgert down as long as he stayed in the mountains. Knowing Burgert could make his way up to the Flathead, Dupont said he was “certainly paying a lot more attention than I normally would.”

“He’s pretty bitter about things in the Flathead,” he said. “I just hope he doesn’t come up here and cause hell. He totally dislikes me.”

“He’s pretty savvy,” Dupont continued. “They’re not going to catch him in the woods. But he’ll get lonely and come out and that’s when they’ll get him.”

Curry says he doubts Burgert is willing to be taken back to prison alive, if he’s not already dead.

“In his mind, he thinks he’s done enough now that he’ll carry it through to the end,” Curry said. “If I had a dime for every time someone says, ‘you’ll never take me alive,’ I’d be a pretty rich guy. But he would be one of the ones where it may be true.”

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