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For the next five days, officers from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and Missoula Police Department, supported by the FBI and U.S. Marshals, combed the Graves Creek area. Road blocks were set up and a spot plane flew low over the mountains.
The search recovered three caches containing food, ammunition and weapons, several of which belonged to the rancher in eastern Montana. They also discovered a makeshift cabin in the woods that turned out to be the home of a transient squatter. Burgert was nowhere.
In June 2012, officers from the U.S. Marshals, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and several other agencies re-intensified a search effort in the area, combing swaths of thick brush in 40-man lines. They brought a cadaver dog. Again, they found nothing.
Dominick says they received a number of tips after the “America’s Most Wanted” episode aired in October 2011, but since then the open investigation has been quiet.
“A handyman in Florida, a transient spotted back east …,” Dominick says. “We got a tip a couple of months ago. They’ve mostly turned out to be cold leads.”
Today, there is no longer a trail to follow. The ridge where Burgert disappeared has seen two years of rain, snow, wind and fire and offers as much evidence of two hunting seasons as it does the disappearance of a fugitive. Assuming he’s alive, finding Burgert today is predicated on him making a mistake or an accomplice turning on him.
But there is no consensus on whether or not Burgert made it out of the woods that summer or even that day. Dominick and Newsom will presume he’s alive until a body is recovered. Larry Chezem believes his friend survived for different reasons—because “he trained to survive.”
“I know him too well. He’s alive and well somewhere,” he says. “I just don’t know where.”
Chuck Curry disagrees. He feels it’s unlikely Burgert would be able to stay out of trouble for so long. He believes if he were alive, he’d be captured by now.
“I could be wrong,” he says, “but Dave Burgert is not the kind of guy that just fades into obscurity.”
There’s also this: On the afternoon Burgert disappeared, as the search mounted up Wagon Mountain Road, numerous officers reported hearing a single gun shot in the distance. Dominick describes it as “suspicious,” but doesn’t believe Burgert took his own life. He says it’s common for people to go up into the woods to shoot guns.
For most of his life, Burgert battled himself. He was a criminal, a drunk, a gadfly and a maker of astoundingly poor decisions. He was the diagnosable sort of paranoid, delusional and depressed. But there is enough to know about Burgert to suggest his story is not so reducible, that he at least wanted to be more than those things.
In 2003, with nearly a decade of prison ahead of him, Burgert wrote a series of letters to Kandi Matthew-Jenkins. One reflects a man struggling to cope.
“My system is in shock still, and I really do not know how to respond. I am having a very tough time communicating and talking properly. I am [illegible] of another attack on myself or what they could do to my family. I am not over what has been done to me. I don’t know if I ever will be.”
Another letter sent in November 2003 is more hopeful. “I went to a Bible study today … Very pleasant and uplifting.”
That letter was written on the back of a printout of the Robert Service poem, “The Call of the Wild,” which his mother had sent to him. (“I gotta spread the good stuff around,” he wrote.) The penultimate verse reads, “They have cradled you in custom,/ They have primed you with their preaching,/ They have soaked you in convention through and through;/ They have put you in a showcase;/ You’re a credit to their teaching./ But can’t you hear the Wild?—it’s calling you.”
No one knows what Burgert thought as he turned off the pavement in June 2011. It seems, though, that he understood where he was going—that the man who as a boy wandered the wilderness around his mountain home knew that Graves Creek Road went nowhere.
In fact, as he approached the Lumberjack Saloon that day, the patrons sipping drinks on the deck could hear the low rumbling of vehicles and shrill swoon of a siren before they could see the pursuers and the pursued. Several of them would later say that as Burgert passed, he took one hand off the steering wheel, stuck it out the window and waved.