The two David Burgerts 

Authorities call the missing ex-militia leader armed and dangerous. Others tell a different story.

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.

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“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.”

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.

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  • Phyllis Richards
  • Burgert at 18 months

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.

Exactly when Project 7 formed and to what extent the group was a militant, anti-government militia is difficult to pin down. Larry Chezem met Burgert at his rental shop in January 2001. Chezem, who had previously worked as a high school teacher and guidance counselor in Ronan, was then making a living installing and repairing satellite dishes in Flathead Valley homes. He had heard Burgert call in to a local talk radio show and found a common ground in Burgert’s suspicion of government. “We’d had a whole string of things—Waco, Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, the assault weapons ban,” he says. “If you had a viewpoint considered in opposition to the mainstream politic, you were harassed.”

Chezem found a like-mind in Burgert, and shortly after meeting, Burgert invited him to participate in a group he was organizing.

“[Burgert] told me he had hired a CPR instructor who would be giving weekend training sessions over the course of about six weeks,” Chezem remembers, and adds that the group had no name. The “Project 7” moniker, which alluded to the “7” on Flathead County license plates, was “fed to the media by Dupont,” he says.

Over time, the group’s ambitions evolved.

“We had all felt that things were moving in such a direction that there was a disaster coming down the road—man-made or natural,” Chezem recalls. “Our agreement was that we would train ourselves in survival skills as best we could and to get a knowledge base so that we could also train other people.”

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  • Phyllis Richards
  • Prom. Camping, age 14.

Chezem says the stockpiling of food, clothing, medical supplies, “and yes,” ammunition and weapons, was not to orchestrate a government takeover, but to help “everyone in the community” in the event of catastrophe.

“It was no different from what the fire department was doing,” he says.

But as Project 7 took shape, Burgert’s problems with law enforcement grew more serious. On Jan. 5, 2001, Bob Cesnick, a member of his AA group, was signaled to pull over by a Highway Patrol vehicle. Like Burgert, Cesnick was paranoid about law enforcement. He panicked and drove straight to Burgert’s house without stopping.

A dashboard camera recording from that night depicts a chaotic scene. The Highway Patrol officers had been joined by Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Snyder, their vehicles parked behind Cesnick’s pickup truck. Though the beginning of the recording’s audio is muddled, charging documents would later allege that upon arriving, Burgert told Cesnick to go inside the house. When Snyder attempted to follow across the threshold of Burgert’s front door, Burgert attempted to forcibly stop him. Though neither of the two other officers would testify to witnessing it and though he sustained no injuries, Snyder claimed that Burgert punched him.

In the recording, after all of the men are outside again, Cesnick spits obscenities at the officers while Burgert urges him to calm down and just “talk to them.” Burgert tries to diffuse the situation.

“This man is afraid of police,” he says to the officers.

Finally, the officers leave and say they will recommend charges be pressed. As they get back in their vehicles, one officer says to another, “That other guy is Dave Burgert.”

The officer responds, “Oh, Burgert. Okay.”

During summer 2001, Burgert fought the assault charge in court and avoided prison. Meanwhile, Project 7 continued to stockpile provisions and train one another in wilderness first aid, edible plant identification and the handling of firearms. Then, over the course a few days in November, the situation changed.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2001, a 12-year-old boy named Kodi Quinn went hunting with his father, Kelly, on Stryker Ridge north of Whitefish. The day was cold and the pair became disoriented in a snowstorm. Newspaper accounts of the incident say Kodi turned “lethargic” and his father found a tree well, protected from the elements, for him to wait in while he found help. After making it back to the road, Kelly called search and rescue.

Burgert heard the call come in over the radio and contacted Sheriff Dupont saying he’d led snowmobiling trips in the Stryker Ridge area and that he could help. Dupont refused.

The search lasted through the night, but to no avail. Kodi’s frozen body was recovered the next afternoon.

Burgert’s mother, Phyllis Richards, received a call from her son the day Kodi was found.

“He was crying like a baby. He said, ‘Mom, I could have found that boy, I knew where he was,’” she remembers. “That’s when David lost it. “

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Security camera footage from 2001 shows Burgert handcuffed and with a canvas bag over his face after being pepper-sprayed by Kalispell police.

Two days later, on Nov. 27, Burgert was asked by a Missoula attorney to help serve process papers to a Kalispell woman. Burgert had helped the attorney before, serving papers in the Flathead Valley. According to the attorney, who wishes to remain anonymous because of how his connection to Burgert affected his personal and professional life, he and another process server had searched for the woman all day, but couldn’t find her. They left the documents with Burgert before heading back to Missoula, but on their way out of Kalispell spotted the woman’s husband, a local doctor. They began following him and the man called 911, claiming he was being stalked. The attorney was pulled over by Kalispell police.

The attorney says he called Burgert and asked him to bring the papers to the scene, proof that he wasn’t stalking. When Burgert arrived, however, an officer immediately asked him to leave. When Burgert refused, a video recording of the incident shows one officer ordering another officer to “get [Burgert] to leave or arrest him.” The officer then douses Burgert in the face with pepper spray and puts him in handcuffs.

The Missoula attorney was let go, and a police department security camera recording shows Burgert getting booked. His face is puffy and his eyes are swollen shut. He continually tries to rub his head on his shoulders. He spits on the floor and complains about the burning in his eyes, throat and nose. He is agitated and confrontational with the officers as they process him, but Burgert complies as they pat-search his body. One of the officers then leaves the room and turns on a shower, presumably to decontaminate the prisoner. Burgert spits again just as Police Chief Frank Garner enters the room and walks past Burgert, directly to the shower. He turns it off and orders a canvas bag be put over Burgert’s head. Burgert writhes and seems to panic.

“I cannot breathe,” he says. “And I’m sick to my stomach.”

Garner responds coolly, as if talking to a child.

“Well you sound like you’re breathing to me, David.”

Burgert was released early the next morning.

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.

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  • Daily Inter Lake
  • The late Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont is seen in a 2002 photo displaying a cache of weapons that were associated with David Burgert and Project 7.

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.”

Burgert was released from prison in March 2010. His mother had been to all the court hearings, had driven to spend Christmas with him at the federal medical prison in Rochester, Minn., and made once-a-month trips to the penitentiary he was later moved to in Talladega, Ala. Upon his release, she says she bought him some new clothes and drove with him to Missoula, where his probation officer was based and where he would try to begin his life again.

Richards remembers Burgert was happy for a time. She says he volunteered at the Missoula Food Bank and that he got an apartment on the Westside.

Kandi Matthew-Jenkins was relieved to see her friend out of prison.

“He showed up one day, and I just said, ‘Is that you?’” she recalls. “It was so good to see him safe.”

Eventually, Burgert got permission from his probation officer to go to work on a ranch in eastern Montana, killing gophers and mending fences. Richards says her son called her every day and once complained about the fact that the rancher he was working for wouldn’t allow him to dispose of a cow carcass laying in pasture. The sight upset him but the rancher thought it a waste of time to dispose of the remains. The men fought, and the rancher would later tell Missoula County deputies that Burgert had punched him, and that he didn’t press charges because he assumed Burgert would just come back to work. Richards says the rancher gave her son guns as payment. Law enforcement says Burgert stole them.

In late spring 2011, Burgert was back in Missoula County. Richards says he couldn’t afford his medication. John Rhodes saw his former client at the Ole’s gas station on Orange Street and could sense there was something wrong.

“We talked briefly, and it was apparent to me he wasn’t doing well,” Rhodes remembers. “I was concerned about his stability.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters

By early June, Burgert was living in a camp near the Fort Fizzle recreation area on the banks of Lolo Creek. He stayed there for a few weeks, intermittently driving into town for groceries.

On the morning of June 12, someone called 911 and reported a suspicious-looking man camping in the day-use only area. Deputies Newsom and Schwindt were in Lolo responding to reports of vandalism when they got the call. They finished with the broken windows before heading to Fort Fizzle.

At around 11:30 a.m., as the deputies pulled into the Fort Fizzle parking lot, a man got into a blue Jeep Cherokee and took off in the opposite direction.

“He’s running from you,” Newsom told the in-training Schwindt, who was driving at the time.

Burgert left the pavement and took off down a muddy two-track that followed a string of power lines through the woods. The deputies got stuck and Newsom told Schwindt to get out so he could drive. Then Burgert got back on Highway 12 and headed west. By the time the Cherokee turned right on Graves Creek Road, the officers knew who they were dealing with.

How much of that day Burgert had planned in advance is open to speculation. Most likely, he had no idea sheriff’s deputies would show up at Fort Fizzle, even though he seemed ready when they did. Newsom recalls Burgert driving fast, but not erratically, as if he knew where he was going. (He also says journalists’ description of the chase as “slow-speed” was part of a media “template” in retelling the story.) Then-Undersheriff Mike Dominick received reports of someone fitting Burgert’s description getting in an argument with a county roads employee on Wagon Mountain Road a few weeks before.

As Burgert led the deputies down Graves Creek and then up Wagon Mountain, Newsom relayed their location over the radio. Backup was coming from Missoula, some 30 miles away.

“I had never been up that road,” Newsom says. “There isn’t even a road sign.”

At one point, where the road breaks from the trees, Burgert stopped and began to reverse. Newsom told Scwhindt to get ready to fire. Schwindt hopped out of the car, hoping to shoot out Burgert’s tires, but Burgert immediately proceeded forward again.

Less than a quarter mile later, Burgert turned off the road and began driving over sapling evergreens up a steep slope to a ridge that ran parallel to the road. The deputies continued down Wagon Mountain, scanning the ridgeline for any sign of Burgert. After 100 yards or so, Schwindt spotted him.

Newsom remembers Burgert looked calm as he strapped a fanny pack around his waste. He was holding a handgun.

As Newsom started up the hill toward Burgert he yelled at him to drop the gun. Newsom says Burgert—almost “calmly”—rested his arms on the Jeep’s hood and took aim. All Newsom could see was the top of Burgert’s head and the open barrel of his gun.

Investigators later recovered five shells from Newsom’s assault rifle. The distance between the deputy and Burgert’s Jeep was about 14 yards. Newsom can’t remember exactly how many shots Burgert fired—none of his shells were ever recovered—but he knows it was more than once and he knows Burgert shot first. He doesn’t know how he survived.

“I couldn’t get it out of mind that I could see inside his barrel,” he says. “And I didn’t get shot. I’m still alive.”

After Newsom fired his shots, Burgert disappeared. He and Schwindt, who had also fired several rounds, approached the Jeep slowly, thinking an injured or dead Burgert would be lying on the other side. But he was gone.

From where Burgert stood as he fired at Newsom, the view is quintessential Montana. To the north and west, dense pine forests carpet the hills before giving way to the charred landscape of an old wildfire. To the south, the craggy spine of the Bitterroot Mountains snakes its way down the Montana-Idaho border. But to the east, from that spot, a thick wall of new-growth spruce obscures everything. It was the only place Burgert could have gone, and when later that day dozens of Missoula law enforcement officers showed up on the scene, it was to the east that they began their search.

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.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Illustration: Pumpernickel Stewart

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.

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