Where is David Burgert?
On June 12, 2011, David Burgert — a convicted felon and militia leader who hatched a plan to overthrow state and local government a decade earlier — led police on a chase through the forests of western Montana. In a wooded area in the Lolo National Forest, David drove up a hill, got out of his truck and shot at two sheriff’s deputies before disappearing into the wilderness.
No one has seen him since.
From the newsroom of the Flathead Beacon comes a new podcast about one of Montana’s biggest mysteries: Where is David Burgert?
A 911 call. A low-speed chase. A climb through the woods. A gunfight. And then, nothing. From the Flathead Beacon comes a new true crime podcast about a man no one can agree on. To his friends, David Burgert was a thoughtful, selfless, righteous crusader devoted to protecting the U.S. Constitution and rooting out corruption in local government. But to law enforcement, he was a violent, angry bully who blamed everyone but himself for his troubles and hatched a diabolical plan to incite a civil war.
Our story begins in Dayton, Ohio and travels through Colorado, Alabama and Kalispell, Montana, in the early 2000s, before the man who careened through life vanishes outside Missoula in June 2011. So where is David Burgert now? It’s the question we try to answer and one that leads us to unexpected places.
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Episode 1: Where in the world is David Burgert?
Larry Schwindt was a rookie deputy with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office on June 12, 2011, when he and his partner got a call about a man illegally camping at a place called Fort Fizzle. Little did Schwindt know the call would change his life forever. A few minutes later, Schwindt was being led deep into the Lolo National Forest by a man named David Burgert, a convicted felon who a decade earlier had organized a militia in hopes of overthrowing the government further north in Flathead County. Just beyond the Lumberjack Saloon, at a place called Wagon Mountain, David ditched his car, fired at the two deputies and disappeared into the woods forever.
In the first episode of Project 7, Flathead Beacon reporters Andy Viano and Justin Franz dive into David’s disappearance in 2011, his upbringing in Ohio and Colorado and his first run-in with the law in Alabama in 1985.
What is Fort Fizzle?
The rest area where David Burgert spent what could have been his final days got its name from a temporary military barricade erected by the U.S. Army in July 1877 to intercept members of the Nez Perce tribe who were crossing over Lolo Pass into the Bitterroot Valley. At the time, the tribe was at war with the United States over their ancestral land. While the U.S. Army captain who led the effort to build the barricade hoped the confront the Indians, his volunteers were less enthusiastic about a battle and left. The fort had fizzled and the Nez Perce were able to pass without conflict.
Episode 2: The Two David Burgerts
After a brief stint in prison for breaking into a trailer and stealing a sandwich, David Burgert arrives in the sleepy town of Kalispell, Montana in 1989 looking to start a new life. But David struggles to leave the ghosts of his past behind and quickly spirals out of control. After hitting rock-bottom, David finds solace and companionship in a local Alcoholics Anonymous group. But trouble soon finds David again.
In episode 2 of Project 7, reporters Justin Franz and Andy Viano look at David’s arrival in northwest Montana and his early interactions with law enforcement that led to a fateful night in 2001 that some say is the moment his life took a dark turn for the worst.
A Sleepy Little Town
While today it is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, the town that serves as the setting for much of Project 7 was a much quieter place in the 1990s. Kalispell is the county seat of Flathead County and in 1990 had just over 12,000 residents. The town was settled in the 1890s, about when the railroad first came to town, and over the years has been a mostly-blue color community heavily dependent on timber and agriculture. However, all that began to change in the 1990s and early 2000s, when tourism quickly became the primary economic driver of the region and more people flocked to the region to find a quieter way of life. In the last 30 years, Kalispell’s population has doubled and the surrounding Flathead Valley is home to well over 100,000 people.
Episode 3: The Radical Within
For much of 2001, a conflict was brewing between David Burgert and law enforcement in the Flathead Valley. Early in the year, David got into a physical confrontation with some cops at his home in Kalispell. Later, in November, the local search and rescue team refused his assistance when a young boy was lost in an area David was familiar with; the boy later died. And finally, on Nov. 27, 2001, David was pepper-sprayed and arrested in downtown Kalispell before spending a night in jail. Friends say that night was a breaking point for David.
The 1990s and early 2000s were also a breaking point for extremism in the Inland Northwest. In episode 3 of Project 7, reporters Andy Viano and Justin Franz look at the events that pushed David toward extremism and the people who welcomed him into the fold.
A Water War in Klamath Falls
In 2001, southern Oregon was experiencing a record-breaking drought and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees water management in parts of the west, had reduced water access to local farmers and ranchers in order to protect two species of fish in the region that are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Some in the area believed that the federal government was putting fish over farmers and as the summer wore on tensions began to rise. Soon people with an ax to grind against the federal government began to descend on southern Oregon and David Burgert was among them. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, many in the anti-government “Patriot movement” saw the water war in Klamath Falls as the next Waco or Ruby Ridge and they were preparing for a fight.
Episode 4: The Hit List
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, anti-government extremists were among federal law enforcement’s top concerns, but that all changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet regardless of what law enforcement was focusing on after the terror attacks, there was a growing threat in Kalispell as David Burgert stockpiled weapons and turned a fledgling militia into an army to deliver revenge. And just as his militia appeared to be ramping up to a fight, an unexpected informant emerged to send David Burgert on the run.
In episode 4 of Project 7, reporters Justin Franz and Andy Viano look at how the 9/11 terror attacks impacted David Burgert and what happened when he went on the lam in an effort to avoid the law.
What is the State of Liberty?
Some say that David Burgert wanted to overthrow the government, but what did he want to put in its place? It’s hard to say, but separatist movements are not unheard of in the United States or in the Inland Northwest. One of the most prominent separatist movements currently is the State of Liberty, which would create its own state centered around eastern Washington. While some proposed maps show Liberty only including eastern Washington, others include northern Idaho and western Montana. A major proponent of it is Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, a controversial politician from the Spokane area who in 2018 admitted to distributing a manifesto that called for the murder of non-Christian in the event of a war.
Mid-Season Bonus Episode
Project 7, the six-part mini-series from the Flathead Beacon, will return with Episode 5 on May 13.
Until then, here are a pair of segments from bonus episodes of the show that are released each week for members of the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. Bonus episodes include in-depth conversations with the show’s hosts, interview clips that could not fit into the regular episode and other related conversations. To join the Editor’s Club or get more information, visit beaconeditorsclub.com.
Episode 5: The People v. David Burgert
For more than a year, David Burgert had been stockpiling weapons and making a list of public officials he wanted to assassinate in an apparent attempt to overthrow the government. But it all came crashing down in February 2002, when a close friend of David went to the FBI and told them about his plans. After an all-night standoff with police, David is arrested and spends nearly a decade behind bars. When he gets out in 2010, David is jobless, homeless and aimless. After bouncing around Montana for a year, he decides to head out to the Lolo National Forest in June 2011 where he eventually gets into a shootout with police and disappears into Montana lore.
In episode 5 of Project 7, reporters Andy Viano and Justin Franz look at the days before David went to federal prison, and the ones leading up to his mysterious disappearance.
‘Truly an Amazing Man’
One of David’s most frequent sparring partners was Jim DuPont, who served as the Flathead County Sheriff from 1991 to 2006. DuPont was a widely respected public figure with a colorful personality, and he continued in public service as a Flathead County commissioner from 2009 until he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2012 when he was just 65 years old. Two local law enforcement mainstays — Chuck Curry, who succeeded DuPont as sheriff in 2006, and Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner — led a large memorial service to honor DuPont after his passing.
Episode 6: The Hunt
Nine years ago, David Earl Burgert Jr., a former militia leader and convicted felon, disappeared in the mountains of Montana. No one has seen him since. In the years since that day in June 2011, Burgert’s legend has grown and the hunt for answers has continued, but so far, it has only turned up more questions.
In the final episode of Project 7, Flathead Beacon reporters Justin Franz and Andy Viano look back at nearly 18 months of reporting and ask the people who knew him what they think happened to Burgert. Is he dead? Or is he alive and drifting amongst us unnoticed?
‘We Know What We Heard’
Not long after Burgert disappeared near Wagon Mountain Road in the Lolo National Forest, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Anthony Rio and some other officers reported hearing a single gunshot. Rio wanted to explore the area where he believed he heard the shot, but Sheriff Carl Ibsen was hesitant, worried that Burgert might be trying to lure officers into an ambush. “A couple of us told the sheriff, ‘Look, we know what we heard,’ but he just wouldn’t have it,” Rio told the Beacon in 2019. “It was a bone of contention.” Rio said he believes the 2011 search for Burgert was flawed and incomplete. Later, Rio and the sheriff’s office conducted a new search with cadaver dogs that, on multiple occasions, have gone to the same area where Rio thought he heard the single shot leading him to believe that Burgert’s remains are nearby. However, nine years later, the hunt for a body continues.
BONUS: What Happened to David Burgert?
Show hosts Andy Viano and Justin Franz sat down on the ninth anniversary of David Burgert’s disappearance to talk about the series they spent more than 18 months putting together. Flathead Beacon Editor-in-Chief Kellyn Brown guides the conversation, which covers Justin and Andy’s theories about what happened back in 2011, what they learned from making the show and what they still want to know.