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People close to Burgert say he was broken after the November 2001 episode. His paranoia became overwhelming.
“He always thought they were watching him,” Chezem recalls. “And sometimes I’m sure they were.”
“They didn’t even treat him like a human,” adds Richards.
Then Burgert disappeared. On Jan. 9, 2002, Burgert went fishing and never returned. His wife, who by then was estranged from Burgert (Richards calls them “roommates”), reported him missing, and his pickup truck was found at a Flathead River fishing access. His fishing pole and tackle box were strewn on the bank.
It was clear to members of the sheriff’s department what conclusion Burgert wanted them to draw, but they were unconvinced.
“He made a poor attempt at faking his own death,” Curry says. “We didn’t believe he was dead for a minute.”
For nearly a month, Burgert remained missing. Newspaper accounts at the time reported his wife believed he had drowned. Then she accused law enforcement of killing her husband. Curry was confident he would turn up.
“Dave Burgert just wasn’t the sort of guy that would just go hide in the woods for the rest of his life,” he says. “It just wasn’t his personality to disappear.” Since disappearing, Burgert had also failed to show up for a court hearing for his January 2001 assault charge. He was now a fugitive.
Before the end of January, a Project 7 defector named Jason Larson called in a tip. He told the sheriff’s department that Burgert was hiding in the area and was being supported by a fellow group member named Tracy Brockway with whom he had become romantically involved. He also said that Burgert and Project 7 were conspiring to assassinate judges, county prosecutors and other government officials with the aim of drawing the National Guard into a war in Flathead Valley.
On Feb. 7, deputies staked out Brockway’s home, and after spotting Burgert leave, gave chase. It was snowing and Burgert’s car slipped off the road. He took off into the woods.
All night SWAT team members hunted Burgert through the forest. At times, they were close enough to hear him trudging through the snow, but the darkness kept him out of their reach. Finally, after dawn, Burgert took off across a field and posted underneath a tree clutching a rifle. As officers yelled at him to drop his weapon, he sat down on the ground, put the gun to his head and said he would kill himself. After several tense hours, he just gave up.
In 2002, Burgert pleaded guilty in Missoula federal court to owning an illegal firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm. After his capture, investigators discovered Project 7’s cache, which reportedly included body armor, pipe bombs, several automatic rifles, more than 30,000 rounds of ammunition and military rations. Though Burgert was not charged with anything related to the assassination plots, investigators also claimed to have found the names and addresses of 26 county officials, including several judges, law enforcement officers, Flathead County prosecutors and a dog catcher who worked for the Whitefish Police Department. An FBI investigation ensued, and in 2004, this time with five other Project 7 members, Burgert was again charged with federal weapons violations.
Burgert told reporters in 2002 that there was no “hit list” and that he had compiled information because he was one of the few people willing to serve legal process papers on public officials.
Larry Chezem, who in 2003 moved to Indiana unaware of the FBI investigation, says he wasn’t surprised no one was charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
He says whether Burgert kept the files for process serving or because he was attempting to document “the corruption of government,” there was never a Project 7 plot.
“The [newspapers] … came up with this fabulous story that the group was going to create a situation where the locals would have to ask the governor to help. The governor would ask for the National Guard, and the six of us being such highly trained super human people, we were going to take them on one by one,” he says. “After we nailed the National Guard to the wall, then we’d do a number on the regular military. Really? Try to imagine that.”
Today, Chezem lives on a farm in West Virginia. A year after moving to Indiana, he says he was arrested in his driveway by federal agents and charged with conspiracy to possess illegal firearms, stemming from his involvement with Project 7. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
In 2011, Chezem finished federal probation, but he says the repercussions of becoming a felon have haunted him. For years he was unable to find work and in 2010 he lost his house, prompting him to accept an offer to take care of the old farm where he lives today.
“This whole thing,” he says, “it ruined my life.”
Burgert spent the next seven years in Missoula County jail and federal prisons around the country. During his initial court proceedings, Burgert’s public defender, Melissa Harrison, argued that her client was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder, delusional disorder and PTSD, and said it was unreasonable to portray him as a “dangerous, anti-government person who might possibly have been trying to assassinate people.” She added that Burgert was not the “monster he has been depicted [as] in the press.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean countered that despite his mental illness, Burgert was clearly a menace.
“This defendant is simply a conniving, manipulative criminal and has been since he left the Marines in 1981,” McLean said.
John Rhodes, a federal defender who represented Burgert during a successful appeal regarding the length of his sentence and the fact that he had been charged twice for the same crime, says that Burgert’s mental health issues were too often overlooked.
“I respected Dave, and I think he respected me. He was somebody that was paranoid of government, and he was mentally ill. No doubt about that,” Rhodes says. “And like a lot of mentally ill people, if they’re taking their accurately prescribed medications, they’re fine. And if they’re not, they’re spiraling downward.”
Rhodes adds that during the time he worked with Burgert, he was in custody and taking his prescriptions.
“To me, there were two David Burgerts,” Rhodes says. “Mainly, I saw the stable David.”