A manhunt was underway Monday in a remote area near the Idaho-Montana border for an antigovernment militia leader who fired shots at pursuing deputies a day earlier. David Burgert, recently released from federal prison for involvement in a plot to assassinate police and elected officials, was being hunted by sheriff’s deputies from two western Montana counties.
An FBI SWAT team from Salt Lake City was flown to Montana and joined the manhunt at daybreak for Burgert, who has a diagnosed paranoid personality disorder, law enforcement officials said. Details of the manhunt were sketchy because there is no cell phone service in the area, about 5 miles west of Lolo, Mont., and north of U.S. Highway 12. The terrain is mountainous and heavily timbered.
A command post for the manhunt was setup at the Lumberjack Saloon, where the fleeing Burgert waved at patrons before disappearing into the woods and shooting at deputies on Sunday. The deputies weren’t hit and returned fire as Burgert fled into the woods. Various law enforcement officials said there were indications Burgert may have planned the encounter and hidden weapon or food caches in the search area.
Just last week when he was stopped by a Montana Highway patrolman, Burgert told the trooper “he wasn’t going to be taken down like the last time” and “it would take a SWAT team” to bring him in, the Billings Gazette reported.
The latest encounter between Burgert and law enforcement occurred Sunday when Missoula County deputies were dispatched to check on a Blue Jeep Cherokee that had been parked for a long time near Fort Fizzle, a day-use picnic area on Highway 12. As deputies approached, authorities said Burgert sped away west on Highway 12, eventually turning northbound on Graves Creek Road, driving past the Lumberjack Saloon.
A short distance away, he stopped his vehicle and fired a handgun at approaching deputies, Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick told the Billings Gazette. “This is a very dangerous person,’’ the undersheriff said. “I believe he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at anyone or kidnap somebody to get their rigs.”
In 2002, Burgert headed an antigovernment militia group called “Project 7” in Flathead County, in northwestern Montana, about 120 miles north of where the current manhunt is underway. The “Project 7” militia was heavily armed and was allegedly plotting to assassinate local officials, battle the National Guard and attempt to overthrow the federal government.
That antigovernment group was dismantled with the 2002 arrest of Burgert on federal firearms charges. He was sentenced to eight years in prison where he filed civil suits against city, county and federal officials. Those suits later were dismissed as frivolous.
“This situation is strikingly similar to the events leading up to his arrest back in 2002,’’ said Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors extremist activities in that state. “It’s important to remember that this guy went to prison after leading a militia group that was stockpiling ammunition and planning to assassinate local criminal justice employees,’’ McAdam said. “Those hardcore antigovernment views don’t change overnight, or in this case even after six years in prison. We think law enforcement is correct to view him as incredibly dangerous.”
Burgert was released from prison in March 2010 and reportedly had been living in Missoula. He has an ex-wife and son who live near Kalispell, but they have had no contact with him, according to Flathead County Undersheriff Jordan White.
Burgert, however, has estranged family members and former associates living in Montana. White said Burgert has no known connections with a new antigovernment patriot group, "Flathead Liberty Bell," created in 2009 after a visit and speech by Francis Schaeffer Cox, who later moved to Fairbanks, Alaska.
In March, Cox and five other militia leaders were arrested in high-profile firearms, murder and kidnapping plot. Authorities seized hand grenades, a silencer and an unregistered machine gun in that case. Cox, 27, currently is in jail on federal charges accusing him of plotting to plot to kill Alaska state troopers and a federal judge, along with amassing the Militias are part of the so-called “Patriot” movement, whose conspiracy-minded members typically see the federal government as their primary enemy. The movement has grown significantly in the last two years.