LOLO - An extensive manhunt was under way in the mountains west of Lolo late Sunday for a former anti-government militia leader who allegedly led Missoula County sheriff's deputies on a chase and shot at them earlier in the day.
No one was struck by the gunfire.
The suspect is David Burgert, who is on federal and state probation and who, a decade ago, led the right-wing militant group called Project 7. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 2004.
Named for the number "7" on Flathead County license plates, Project 7 was a group that armed itself and allegedly plotted to assassinate local officials, then go to war with the National Guard and overthrow the federal government.
Burgert served time in the Federal Bureau of Prisons on weapons charges before being released on probation. Prior to his sentencing, he was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder.
"This a very dangerous person," said Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick. "I believe he wouldn't hesitate to shoot at anyone or kidnap somebody to get their rigs."
The incident on Sunday began around 11:50 a.m., when Missoula County sheriff's deputies were called to check on the welfare of a person who had been parked for a long time at Fort Fizzle, a day-use picnic area along U.S. Highway 12.
When deputies approached Burgert's blue Jeep Cherokee, he took off, driving west on Highway 12, with the deputies in pursuit.
Burgert turned off the highway at Graves Creek Road, and slowed down to wave at diners who were sitting on the outdoor patio at the LumberJack Saloon.
No one at the famous bar knew about the chase until the sheriff's cruiser came flying up the road at high speed, said Kella Babcock, owner of the saloon.
"The guy they are chasing - he went by and waved at us like he was on a Sunday drive," Babcock said. "It was kind of weird."
Once past the LumberJack, Burgert continued driving up Graves Creek and deep into the forest.
Shortly before the mountain divide where Graves Creek becomes Petty Creek, Burgert pulled his Jeep to the side of the road, jumped out and fired his handgun at the deputies, Dominick said. The deputies fired back, but did not hit Burgert, who calmly grabbed gear out of his vehicle and fled on foot, bushwhacking in a northeast direction.
By late afternoon, a large posse of law enforcement had arrived to hunt the fugitive, who was believed to be somewhere between Wagon Mountain Road, which branches off of Graves Creek Road near the divide, and South Fork Road, which comes into Petty Creek on the other side of the divide.
A number of homes are in the Petty Creek area, and residents were warned of the danger.
"He is still on the move," Dominick said. "But we don't believe anyone is helping him. We believe he is doing this on his own."
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Law enforcement also believe Burgert had been planning for the dramatic conflict for at least a few days.
Last week, he was stopped by the Montana Highway Patrol for a moving violation, and told patrolmen at that time "he wasn't going to be taken down like last time," and "it would take a SWAT team" to bring him in, Dominick said.
A SWAT team was in fact called to help the Missoula County Sheriff's Office find Burgert late Sunday, along with law officers with Missoula city police, the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Montana National Guard.
Anyone who has information that will help in Burgert's arrest is asked to call the Missoula County Sheriff's Department.
Burgert is 6 feet 2 inches tall and 230 pounds, with brown eyes and brown hair. He was last seen wearing a bluish colored shirt and a fanny pack, and is believed to be armed with a handgun and possibly a rifle.
"He is extremely dangerous," Dominick said, "and he's a danger to anyone he meets."
As for the LumberJack Saloon, it's still open for business, Babcock said.
With all the law enforcement staging in her parking lot and manning the roadblock a few yards up Graves Creek, Babcock said with a smile: "I think this is the safest place to be in all of Montana right now."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.