Larry Schwindt walked around the vehicle with his gun drawn expecting to see a body, but the man who had just tried to shoot him moments before was gone. Schwindt looked up at the vast wilderness before him. The man was nowhere to be seen.
“At that point, the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” said Schwindt, who at the time was a rookie deputy with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
An hour earlier, Schwindt and his partner, Will Newsome, had received a report of a man illegally camping along U.S. Highway 12 south of Lolo. Nearly a decade later, Schwindt recalls thinking that the camper was probably someone just passing through the area who didn’t know any better. But soon after arriving at the day-use area called Fort Fizzle, Schwindt realized it wasn’t going to be a normal encounter. As Newsome and Schwindt drove by, the man waved and got into his vehicle. The deputies then pulled into the parking lot just as the man got into his Jeep Cherokee, drove through a ditch and past a stop sign before turning south on U.S. Highway 12. The officers turned their sirens on and began to pursue the vehicle.
As officers headed south, they ran the plates on the Jeep and identified the driver as David Earl Burgert.
A decade earlier, Burgert had become infamous further north in the Flathead Valley. In 2002, Burgert was arrested and charged in federal court after amassing a stockpile of weapons to arm a militia that he had hoped could overpower local law enforcement and overthrow the government. Burgert, who had a hit list of local officials he planned to assassinate, called his group “Project 7.” Burgert would spend nearly eight years in prison before being released in 2010. A year later, on June 12, 2011, he got into the shootout near Lolo with law enforcement.
No one has seen him since.
Nearly a decade after Burgert went missing, the search for the fugitive continues, and a new podcast from the Flathead Beacon — Project 7, which premieres on April 8 — reveals that some in law enforcement believe they know what happened to one of the most wanted men in Montana.
In 2015 and 2016, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office conducted two different searches with multiple cadaver dogs looking for evidence of Burgert. While no direct evidence was turned up in those searches, Capt. Anthony Rio said multiple dogs have honed in on one specific area near where Burgert disappeared, and at least one of the dog teams independently verified that. Rio said the area that the dogs have shown interest in is the same area where he and a number of other officers reported hearing a single gunshot on the day Burgert disappeared.
“I’m not saying that it was David Burgert — maybe it was human remains from a logging accident in the 1800s — I’m just saying that four different cadaver dogs individually alerted to human remains in the same area (where we heard the gunshot),” Rio said.
Rio was among the first officers to arrive on the scene off Wagon Mountain Road in the Lolo National Forest after Burgert disappeared. He said he heard the gunshot within an hour of Burgert’s disappearance and that it sounded like it was 400 to 500 yards away from where the suspect left his car.
After hearing the shot, Rio wanted to search that area, but the sheriff at the time, Carl Ibsen, was hesitant to send officers into what he thought could be an ambush. Instead, they waited for backup, a move that Rio said could have given Burgert time to escape.
“A couple of us told the sheriff, ‘Look, we know what we heard,’ but he just wouldn’t have it,” Rio said. “It was a bone of contention.”
While law enforcement officials have long said they conducted an exhaustive search of the area near Wagon Mountain Road in the days after Burgert disappeared, Rio believes it could have been more aggressive.
For his part, Ibsen said the 2011 search was extensive. He also said the safety of his officers was more important than finding Burgert.
“Once you are the sheriff, the safety of every single person out there is your responsibility,” Ibsen said. “I disagree (that our search was not complete). You have to balance an aggressive search with safety, and I think our guys did a great job.”
While Ibsen maintains the search was good, he admits that the area where Burgert went missing is covered with incredibly thick vegetation: “You gotta see that country. It’s just so dense.”
Rio said that two different dog teams, one from the Bitterroot Valley and another from Flathead County, searched the area where Burgert disappeared, and each time the animals indicated there were human remains nearby. As for why no physical evidence has been discovered — such as Burgert’s gun, a piece of clothing or skeletal remains — Rio said it’s possible that animals or the elements have dispersed what was there.
“Four different dogs all alerted on that same area, and I’ve just never been able to get over that because that’s the same area where I heard that gunshot,” he said.
In the years before his prison sentence, Burgert interacted with numerous members of law enforcement, and almost all of them have theories about what happened to him. Schwindt, the last known person to have seen Burgert alive, is now out of law enforcement and lives in Cut Bank. He believes Burgert survived the shootout because there was no blood near the car and most of the shells he and Newsom fired were accounted for. However, he believes it’s likely Burgert died later on.
“He was so outspoken, so opinionated, he was a habitual pot-stirrer,” Schwindt said. “I can’t imagine someone like him, someone with his personality, would not have tripped up and revealed himself (if he was still on the lam).”
“I’m about 50-50 on it,” Ibsen said. “From what I learned about Burgert, I can’t imagine him staying out of the limelight for this long. On the other hand, we’ve never found anything … You never stop thinking about cases like this.”
At least one member of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office believes Burgert is alive. In 2019, on the A&E program “Live PD,” Det. Rebecca Birket said she believed Burgert was able to escape to Canada where he had “strong ties.” Others have said that scenario is unlikely, although no one has evidence to disprove it either.
Burgert is still listed on the U.S. Marshals Service’s “Most Wanted” list and will remain there until conclusive evidence is found of his whereabouts. In an interview, the marshal leading the search — whose name the Beacon has agreed to withhold — said in the years since Burgert’s disappearance, his office has received tips about the case. When they get tips, federal agents follow the trail until it is cold. As time goes by, the number of leads has dwindled. However, the agent continues to search for answers.
“The search goes on until we find remains or we capture him,” the marshal said. “I have to operate under the assumption that he is still alive.”
Project 7, the Beacon’s first-ever true-crime podcast series, premieres on April 8 and can be heard on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google. For more information, visit project7pod.com.