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On June 13, 2011, the day after Burgert disappeared, Phyllis Richards was at her home in Rogersville, Ala., when six men in “SWAT gear” and carrying guns came to the front door of her trailer. She immediately thought of her son.
“I was thinking they done something to him,” she says.
The men informed her that David was a fugitive. They asked her if she knew where he might be. She said she didn’t.
Richards was worried, but her shock was tempered by her son’s sordid past.
Burgert was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1964, to Richards, a now-retired Army nurse, and a father who had a job as an insurance adjuster and drank too much after work. After his parents divorced when he was 4, his father moved to Lexington, Ky., and his mother eventually moved Burgert and his younger brother to Victor, Colo.
Richards remembers her son thrived in the mountains. She says he loved camping, hunting and fishing and spent days exploring the forests around their home. He was a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout and he played baseball. His troubles didn’t begin until he dropped out of high school and, influenced by his mother’s military service and what she remembered as his tireless desire “to help people,” joined the military.
Burgert, though, had trouble adjusting to military life. Richards says he was abused by his drill sergeant and once was shuttled into the desert for a merciless beating. When her son complained of his injuries, she says, the military doctors called him a “mama’s boy.” After less than two years, he went AWOL and returned to Colorado.
Through an appeal with then-U.S. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, Burgert was honorably discharged in 1981. He re-enrolled in high school.
But Richards says Burgert came home a changed person. She says he started drinking and developed an affinity for bar brawling.
“He would iron his blue jeans, put on a cowboy hat, and I would ask him, ‘Where you going?’ And he would say, ‘Someone’s been bragging their butt’s never been kicked,’” she remembers. “He was different when he came back.”
Not long after returning to school, Burgert’s teacher told him to stop chewing gum in class. Richards says he came home livid. “I’m old enough to serve but I can’t chew gum,” he told her. He dropped out of high school and left Colorado. He headed farther west before landing outside Kalispell in Flathead County.
The subsequent 15 years of Burgert’s life followed the trajectory of a man who was often too drunk to make the right decision. In Flathead County, he got the attention of local law enforcement after stealing a horse. He then went to Alabama, where his mother had moved, to try his hand making money in commercial fishing. That plan floundered in 1985, when Burgert drunkenly broke into a trailer carrying a loaded handgun and ate a sandwich at the kitchen table. He fled when he heard a car park outside, and woke up the next morning without his gun. Burgert called the sheriff’s office to see if they had found it.
For breaking and entering and weapons charges, Burgert went to prison. After being released in 1989, he returned to Montana, met a woman in a bar and got married.
By the mid-1990s, Burgert gave his mother reason to believe that he was headed down a new path. His life had stabilized. He owned a home with his wife, Yvonne, and had started a business that rented snowmobiles to tourists. He had also stopped drinking and founded an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Kalispell.
“He was doing well for himself,” remembers Richards. “He was happy.”
And perhaps because he was sober for the first time since leaving the Marines, Burgert again felt he wanted to help people. He began emergency medical technician training, and in 1996 applied to become a member of the North Valley Search and Rescue team.
He was denied. Then-Sheriff Jim Dupont told team leaders that regulations prohibited the team from having members who had criminal backgrounds. Burgert’s friend Kandi Matthew-Jenkins, a Missoula resident and a now-and-then Constitution Party candidate for local public office, says Burgert was devastated by the rejection. He believed the sheriff’s department was “out to get him.”
“Dave felt like because of petty arguments or dislike or whatever it was on the part of [Dupont],” she says, “they were trying to keep him from making a difference.”
According to then-Undersheriff Chuck Curry, who in 2011 replaced Dupont as sheriff, Burgert began popping up on law enforcement’s radar after he was denied a spot on search and rescue. He owned a police scanner and a radio and would call the police and sheriff’s offices to complain about bad drivers, unsafe intersections and general objections with the way Dupont and Police Chief Frank Garner ran their departments.
“He took issue with everything,” Curry remembers. “He became very confrontational with law enforcement.”
For the next five years, Burgert galvanized his reputation as a thorn in the heel of local government, albeit peacefully. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2001 that his life began to teeter off the rails.