MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Federal and state agents searched a 30-square-mile swath of rugged Montana forest on Monday for a former militia leader and survivalist who officials say fired on deputies and previously told police "he wasn't going to be taken down like last time."
The gunfire exchange between David Burgert, 47, and Missoula County sheriff's deputies happened along a logging trail Sunday after a slow-speed chase near the historic town of Lolo on U.S. Highway 12, authorities said. The deputies returned fire — no one was hurt — before Burgert grabbed gear from the Jeep and fled on foot into the woods, said Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick.
Burgert may have planned the attack, Dominick told The Associated Press Monday. Authorities found ammunition packed inside the Jeep's engine compartment and in another vehicle associated with Burgert, as well as two stolen rifles and a magazine of handgun ammunition on the ground near where he fled, Dominick said.
"He was prepared for a confrontation," Dominick said. "It was not a high-speed chase, he drove purposely onto the logging road and he engaged the deputies with one to three shots."
He described Burgert as a survivalist who is no stranger to the backwoods and who may be in possession of a third vehicle, possibly a tan or red Jeep model.
Tactical agents from the FBI and agents from U.S. Marshal's Service, Missoula police, Missoula County sheriff's officers, as well as law officers from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Montana National Guard were looking for Burgert in a rugged, sparsely populated area of Lolo National Forest west of Lolo, Dominick said.
A National Guard helicopter and a police dog were brought in to assist the searchers, totaling 65 personnel in all.
Burgert is the former leader of a Flathead County militia group known as Project 7, named for the number "7'' on Flathead County license plates in Montana. Project 7 allegedly plotted to assassinate local officials, 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. Before his sentencing, he was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder.
Last week, he was stopped by the Montana Highway Patrol for a moving violation. He told patrolmen then "he wasn't going to be taken down like last time" and that "it would take a SWAT team" to bring him in, Dominick said.
Burgert is described as 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. Authorities believe he had been living out of a vehicle in the area, and searchers have discovered several caches of food in the search area, Dominick said.
"He is extremely dangerous, and he's a danger to anyone he meets," Dominick said.
In July 2004, Burgert pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess illegal firearms, possession of a machine gun and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Federal prosecutors argued he led a group that amassed machine guns and explosives. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Burgert had been arrested in February 2002 after a standoff and a chase. He had a machine gun when he was arrested, and authorities found thousands of rounds of ammunition and homemade explosives while searching sites associated with Project 7.
At the time, officials in Flathead County in far northwestern Montana said that "Project 7" also conspired to kill local police officers, judges and county prosecutors.
Lolo is about 10 miles southwest of Missoula.