On June 12, 2011, David Burgert led Missoula County sheriff deputies on a slow-speed car chase through the mountains south of Lolo. Just past the Lumberjack Saloon, Burgert pulled over, jumped out of his Jeep Cherokee and fired shots at police, before running deep into the woods with just a handgun and a fanny pack.
He’s been missing ever since.
Three years after a manhunt for the former militia leader proved fruitless, law enforcement offer differing opinions about what may have happened to the man who once plotted to assassinate local officials in Flathead County, including current Sheriff Chuck Curry and former Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner.
Curry and Garner, who both dealt with Burgert on multiple occasions in the early 2000s, speculate that the wanted man is dead, but Missoula County Sheriff Capt. Mike Dominick, who led the manhunt, believes otherwise.
“We believe he is still alive and that someone is helping him,” Dominick said. “(And) we’ll continue to search for him until he’s found.”
More than a decade ago, Burgert was a familiar face to lawmen in Flathead County. Burgert, who would be 50 years old now, was the leader of an anti-government militia group based near Kalispell called Project 7. In 2002, the group had stockpiled explosives and firearms in hopes of overthrowing the federal government. They planned to assassinate local leaders and then go to war with the National Guard.
In February 2002, Burgert and five others were arrested after an all-night standoff with police in the valley. He later pleaded guilty in federal court to being a felon in possession of firearms and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and three years supervised release. That sentence was reduced when Burgert agreed to testify against one of the other Project 7 leaders.
Burgert’s 2002 incarceration was not his first stint in prison. In the mid-1980s he spent four years behind bars in Alabama for breaking and entering into a trailer with a loaded gun.
In March 2010, Burgert was released to Montana on probation and spent the next year bouncing around the state looking for work, eventually ending up at a picnic area near Lolo. While Burgert had frequently checked in with his state and federal parole officers, he was also illegally gathering weapons and planning another standoff with police. That plan came to a head on June 12, 2011, when sheriff deputies responded to a report of Burgert’s Jeep being parked at the picnic area for a prolonged period of time.
When the officers arrived at the Fort Fizzle Historic Site Picnic Area, Burgert jumped into his Jeep and headed west on U.S. Highway 12 before turning onto Graves Creek Road. As Burgert drove north he allegedly slowed down and waved to patrons at the Lumberjack Saloon. A short time later, he pulled over, fired at police and disappeared. For nearly a week, local, state and federal law enforcement combed the area looking for Burgert, but no trace was ever found.
“I wasn’t surprised when we learned of the 2011 incident in Missoula because that’s just the type of guy Burgert is,” Curry said. “Wherever he goes he’s going to have contact with law enforcement … He’s just not the kind of guy who goes away. It’s not in his nature.”
Curry, Garner and current Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset all believe that Burgert is dead; “He couldn’t stay under the radar this long,” said Nasset, who was a member of the SWAT team that arrested Burgert in 2002.
But Dominick said there is no evidence that Burgert is deceased and Missoula County believes he’s still on the lam and receiving outside help. He said that numerous tips and leads have been reported to the sheriff’s office over the last three years and some are still being investigated. Dominick declined to go into detail about the tips but did say he believes that Burgert is no longer in Missoula County.
“(This case) is on the back burner for now but we’ll put it on the front burner as soon as we get more information,” he said, adding that there is a reward for information leading to Burgert’s arrest. “We think if he had died up there then his body would have been located by now.”
While Garner still believes Burgert is dead, he said law enforcement officials are always mindful of the criminals they have dealt with in the past.
“Over the course of your career you deal with a lot of people who have gone to jail – murderers, thieves and rapists – and you are always mindful of them,” Garner said. “David Burgert is one of those people.”
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