Graves Creek Road appears to go nowhere. After you take the right turn from Highway 12 onto its washboarded dirt and pass the beehives, the pastured horses, the through-the-pines glimpse of an enormous log cabin and the recently shuttered Lumberjack Saloon, the road becomes rutted and rocky as it negotiates the steep terrain of the Lolo National Forest. If you commit yourself (and your vehicle), eventually you’ll end up on Petty Creek Road, where the dirt is graded and leads to Interstate 90 near Alberton. Otherwise, the only way out is by way of a left turn at Wagon Mountain Road, which has no sign and loops back to Highway 12 after it winds and ascends to wildfire-charred ridge-tops. Once used by loggers, Graves Creek and Wagon Mountain roads are now mostly traveled by hunters, hikers and others looking to escape into the backcountry. They are an ends, rarely a means.
This was the thought Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Will Newsom had on June 12, 2011, when the light blue Jeep Cherokee he and deputy-in-training Larry Schwindt were following turned right on Graves Creek Road. They had just heard over the radio that the Jeep belonged to an ex-militia leader named David Burgert who was on probation for federal gun charges.
“We were told that he hated the government,” Newsom says. “He had threatened to kill law enforcement.”
Moments before, as the chase continued west, Newsom thought one of two things would transpire: “Either he’s heading to the border thinking we’re not going to follow him to Idaho. Or he’s taking us into the woods away from our backup for something bad to happen,” he remembers.
When Burgert turned onto Graves Creek, Newsom feared the worst.
What would later happen spurred a massive manhunt by local and federal law enforcement agencies and drew the attention of media outlets across the country. On Oct., 29, 2011, the 25th season of “America’s Most Wanted” premiered with an episode that reenacted the chase and the brief shootout that followed. By way of illustrating the stakes the deputies faced that day, the show’s host, John Walsh, recalled Burgert’s Project 7 plot from a decade before, which sought to assassinate Flathead County public officials and draw the federal government into war.
“The goal was nothing short of anarchy,” Walsh said, before making a plea to viewers. “Let’s take this dangerous guy off the streets.”
Today, Burgert is wanted for the attempted murder of Newsom and Schwindt as well as violating his federal probation. The saga of his crimes, both alleged and proven, has been told and retold, producing the same questions and dead-end speculations. But just more than two years after he disappeared into the woods, law enforcement is no closer to finding the fugitive.
The story of the man behind the crimes has been less considered. Even if it doesn’t provide any answers, it’s a narrative that at least offers a better understanding of the man described on federal “Wanted” posters as “armed” and “extremely dangerous.”