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'Armed and extremely dangerous' ex-militia leader hunted after Mont. shootout

A former militia leader whose mother said he slipped into paranoia after repeated run-ins with Montana law enforcement eluded authorities searching for him Tuesday.
Missoula County sheriff's deputies sweep a rental cabin at the Lumberjack Saloon west of Lolo, Mont.
Missoula County sheriff's deputies sweep a rental cabin west of Lolo, Mont.Linda Thompson / The Missoulian via AP
/ Source: NBC, and news services

A practiced survivalist and former militia leader whose mother said he slipped into paranoia after repeated run-ins with Montana law enforcement eluded authorities searching for him Tuesday in a remote mountain range near the Idaho border. 

David Burgert, 47, exchanged gunfire with Missoula County sheriff's deputies along a logging trail Sunday after a slow-speed chase near Lolo, officials said. No one was hurt.

Burgert grabbed gear from his Jeep and fled on foot into the woods, Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick said.

Known for his anti-government sentiments, Burgert previously told police "he wasn't going to be taken down like last time," Dominick said.

The former Marine may have planned the attack, Dominick told The Associated Press Monday. Officials believe he may have placed caches of food and weapons along his planned escape route.

The ground hunt for Burgert was scaled back Tuesday after authorities failed to find him in a drainage where it was thought he had taken refuge.

Stolen rifles
Authorities found ammunition packed inside the Jeep's engine compartment and in another vehicle associated with Burgert, as well as two stolen rifles and a magazine of handgun ammunition on the ground near where he fled, Dominick said.

"He was prepared for a confrontation," Dominick said. "It was not a high-speed chase, he drove purposely onto the logging road and he engaged the deputies with one to three shots."

He described Burgert as a survivalist who is no stranger to the backwoods and who may be in possession of a third vehicle, possibly a tan or red Jeep model.

Authorities seized two of three vehicles registered to Burgert, including the Jeep Cherokee loaded with rifles that he abandoned Sunday, but suspect he may have stashed the other vehicle in the Lolo National Forest, Dominick said.

"He is armed and extremely dangerous," Dominick told Reuters.

Residents who live near the search area told CBS affiliate KPAX they've been keeping watch for Burgert.

"I went ahead and locked down, made sure my kids were in the house, made sure my dogs were outside so they could bark," Terry Gregory told the affiliate. "It's kind of a scary situation."

But one resident said he still felt safe.

"I'm not really too worried about it," Thomas Arnone said. "A. I have two really big dogs. B. I have a shotgun and so that always helps. And then with the amount of bears and wildlife that're up on that mountain, wolves, coyotes; he's not gonna be there too long."

Tactical agents from the FBI and agents from U.S. Marshals Service, Missoula police, Missoula County sheriff's officers, as well as law officers from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Montana National Guard were looking for Burgert in a rugged, sparsely populated area of the forest, Dominick said.

A National Guard helicopter and a police dog were brought in to assist the searchers, totaling 65 personnel in all.

Paranoid personality disorder The incident began on Sunday when deputies responded to a report that the operator of a Jeep Cherokee registered to Burgert was driving erratically at a rest stop near Lolo, Dominick said. Lolo is about 10 miles southwest of Missoula.

When patrol cars arrived the driver, later identified as Burgert, allegedly ran a stop sign as the vehicle turned onto a roadway.

Dominick said officers pursued Burgert for 30 miles before he spun onto a side road near a trailhead. The former militia leader allegedly responded to commands that he surrender by shooting at deputies before disappearing into the forest.

Burgert is the former leader of a Flathead County militia group known as Project 7, named for the number "7" on Flathead County license plates in Montana. Project 7 allegedly plotted to assassinate local officials, go to war with the National Guard and overthrow the federal government.

Burgert was never charged in an assassination plot. He reached an agreement with prosecutors in 2003, pleading guilty to federal weapons charges including possession of a machine gun. Four other members of Project 7 pleaded guilty in the case and received lesser sentences.

Before his sentencing, he was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder.

While in prison, Burgert filed at least one lawsuit against law enforcement and other officials in the Kalispell area claiming he was physically abused and denied medications while in jail. He acted as his own attorney and lost the suit in federal court.

In a 2007 letter to the federal judge overseeing his illegal weapons case, Burgert's mother, Phyllis Richards, pleaded for a reduction in Burgert's prison sentence based partly on his history of mental health problems. Richards said her son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and became paranoid after he came under the watch of authorities.

"He was so scared for his own life he was doing all he could just (to) go to the mountains to live and to survive," Richards wrote of her son's activities leading up to his arrest. "I saw fear in Dave I never saw before. ... From that time on he was obsessed with things going on in the world and was so very paranoid."

Burgert was released from prison in March 2010 after serving eight years. He was barred from possessing firearms as a condition of his release, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Rod Ostermilller said.

Associates contacted
The shift in the manhunt came as federal officials said they had obtained arrest warrants over Burgert's alleged probation violations.

Authorities have been contacting Burgert's former associates in case he attempts to return to Kalispell, his former home, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said Tuesday. Curry was in charge of the Flathead SWAT team during the February 2002 hunt for Burgert.

At the time, officials in Flathead County in far northwestern Montana said that Project 7 also conspired to kill local police officers, judges and county prosecutors.

NBC station KCFW reported that authorities in 2002 discovered a hit list of government officials who Burgert hoped to assassinate.

In January of that year Burgert staged his death along the Kalispell River to escape a pending warrant for his arrest, Curry said.

When officers later pulled over a vehicle Burgert was driving with his girlfriend as a passenger, Burgert bailed out and ran through the woods, Curry said. That sparked an all-night chase that ended the next morning with Burgert cornered and holding a gun to his head.

After a standoff of several hours, Burgert surrendered, Curry said.

"I could best describe him as a bully," Curry said. "He's one of those people you're constantly dealing with — confrontations with law enforcement, confrontations with neighbors."

Former neighbor Robert Bray of Kalispell recalled regular gatherings of men at Burgert's house in the years leading up to his arrest. Bray said he knew nothing of any militia activity, but he harbored a dislike for Burgert because of what Bray described as his confrontational demeanor.

'He comes at you'
"He's just really forward and aggressive, and he comes at you," Bray said. "I just didn't like him."

Burgert is described as 6 feet 2 inches tall and 230 pounds, with brown eyes and brown hair. He was last seen wearing a bluish-colored shirt and a fanny pack and is believed to be armed with a handgun and possibly a rifle.

"He's a danger to anyone he meets," Dominick said.