MISSOULA — Authorities thought their dayslong manhunt for a fugitive former anti-government militia leader was reaching a climax as they closed in on a remote Montana forest camp today after hours of surveillance.
But when officers entered the clearing they discovered that the man they had been watching was a squatter — and that David Burgert is still on the run.
Authorities say the ex-convict Burgert planned an armed confrontation with sheriff’s deputies Sunday and then disappeared into a remote Montana forest, relying on previously stashed caches of food, weapons and even vehicles to elude law enforcement officers.
Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick told the Associated Press that Burgert — former leader of the outlaw Project 7 militia — has been living in recent weeks in a truck in the Lolo area, moving among different campsites.
Authorities say he may have left the area in a stashed vehicle, a tan Jeep Cherokee. Officers so far have recovered two other jeeps registered to Burgert and both had ammo in them.
The manhunt began Sunday with what Dominick called a plot by Burgert to attack sheriff’s deputies and disappear into the backcountry.
Burgert led deputies, who were checking on him at a forest parking lot, on a low-speed chase near Lolo, Mont., about 25 miles west of Missoula.
Eventually, he pulled onto a logging road, stopped and shot at the deputies, who returned fire before Burgert grabbed gear from his Jeep and ran into the woods. No one was hurt.
Burgert, 47, had recently told police “he wasn’t going to be taken down like last time.”
“He was prepared for a confrontation,” Dominick said earlier this week.
Authorities say the abandoned jeep was registered to Burgert and that the man who ran into the woods fit Burgert’s description.
Dominick said Burgert stole three rifles from a former employer in eastern Montana, two of which have been recovered. Burgert is believed to be carrying the handgun used Sunday, Dominick said.
Burgert, as the leader of the Project 7 militia in northwest Montana, was convicted in 2003 of illegally possessing a machine gun and sentenced to federal prison.
Before his arrest in that case, Burgert eluded authorities by staging his death along the Flathead River and then retreating to a secluded forest encampment near Kalispell, Mont. He was caught about a month later after an armed standoff in the forest. He was arrested carrying a military-grade assault rifle, authorities said.
The similarities between that escape attempt and the current manhunt are striking: Nearly 10 years ago, authorities found caches of weapons, food and gear believed to be Burgert’s stashed around the search area.
The militia he once led was accused last decade of planning to assassinate local officials and a plot overthrow the federal government. The group was named for the number “7” on Flathead County license plates in Montana.
In 2003, he pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges, including possession of a machine gun. Other members of Project 7 pleaded guilty in the case and received lesser sentences.
Five of Burgert’s associates were convicted the federal case against Project 7 members.
Records show four of them — James Day, Larry Chezem, Steven Morey and Tracy Brockway — have been released. The whereabouts of the fifth, John William Slater, were unknown, said bureau spokesman Chris Burke.
Burgert was released from prison in March 2010 after serving eight years. He was barred from contacting former militia members and from entering Flathead County.
No evidence has emerged to suggest Burgert has been in contact with former militia members in the Kalispell area, although authorities say they have been reaching out to known associates for leads.
Kalispell Police Detective Scott Warnell, who was on the tactical team that apprehended Burgert in 2002, said former members of Project 7 live in northwest Montana but that the group is no longer active.
“That group has been totally disbanded with Burgert going to prison,” Warnell said.
Burgert was on three years’ probation under terms of his release. A representative of the U.S. Probation Office in Missoula, where Burgert’s case was assigned, said the agency was not permitted to disclose details on the case.
Burgert has a history of mental health problems. He was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder before his sentencing in the militia case. Burgert disputed that diagnosis after his conviction.
At the time, public defender John Rhodes acknowledged a “long history of mental health issues.” But he cited a 2004 diagnosis while Burgert was in prison that Burgert suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression — not paranoia.
Burgert said he had been abused as a child by his alcoholic father and witnessed abuse of his mother, court documents show. He began abusing alcohol “at a young age.”
As an 18-year-old in the Marines, Burgert was counseled for behavior and social problems but was honorably discharged. Court documents also detail a 2001 arrest by the Kalispell Police Department in which Burgert was allegedly pepper-sprayed and later had a bag placed over his head because he was spitting on officers.
“The incident traumatized Mr. Burgert, who later told a Bureau of Prisons’ evaluator, ‘I will never regain the dignity they took,’ ” Rhodes wrote.
Rhodes argued for a reduction in Burgert’s 10-year sentence, saying “protection of the public has been accomplished by providing Mr. Burgert with the medications and psychological services he required to address the mental health problems that contributed to his criminal conduct.”