LOLO - A former militia leader who went on the run Sunday after allegedly shooting at Missoula County sheriff's deputies seems well-equipped for a long sojourn in the woods, given the caches of weapons, food and gear already discovered, Undersheriff Mike Dominick said Monday.
Some 65 county, city, state and federal authorities combed a 30-square-mile area west of Lolo on Monday for David Burgert, who once led Project 7, a Flathead County militia group accused of plotting to assassinate judges and law enforcement officers in hopes of provoking a war with the federal government and NATO. (See related story.)
Burgert holds intense anti-government views, and has survivalist skills, Dominick said.
"He has that type of mentality where he believes in training, in preparation," he said. "... This guy seems to have had a plan."
Authorities discovered ammunition in the Jeep Cherokee in which Burgert originally fled on Sunday and also located a second car, loaded with ammunition, food and camping gear, that they believe belongs to Burgert. They're searching for yet another that Dominick described as a tan or red Jeep Wagoneer-type vehicle dating to the 1980s.
A road worker in the area west of Lolo reported seeing someone who looked like Burgert driving such a vehicle recently, Dominick said. "We believe he probably stashed it somewhere," he said.
Likewise, he said, authorities received a tip that Burgert had been camping recently in the area, and on Monday discovered a campground where Burgert apparently dropped a loaded magazine for a Glock handgun and some paperwork as he fled.
Those items not only gave authorities an idea as to which direction Burgert may have been traveling, but also his state of mind.
The papers left behind dealt with court cases and traffic stops involving Burgert, he said.
"He seems to be really obsessed with his interactions with traffic enforcement," said Dominick. "... This guy appears to have wanted a confrontation."
The chase began late Sunday morning when two Missoula County sheriff's deputies stopped to check on a vehicle that had been parked for a long time at the Fort Fizzle picnic area on U.S. Highway 12 west of Lolo. But as they approached, the vehicle fled, leading them on a chase up Graves Creek Road past the Lumberjack Saloon.
Burgert - "a friendly looking guy" - waved to patrons on the deck as he sped past, seemingly oblivious to the sheriff's car, its siren wailing, not 10 feet behind him, said Lumberjack cook Michael Dahl.
Burgert abandoned the Cherokee shortly before the spot where Graves Creek becomes Petty Creek, firing a handgun one to three times at deputies, Dominick said.
Each deputy returned a couple of rounds apiece, he said, but did not hit Burgert, who gathered his gear and a fanny pack and ran northeast into the woods.
On Monday, authorities used a National Guard helicopter, roving vehicle patrols and roadblocks in the area, in addition to conducting foot searches. A 15-member FBI SWAT team flew in from Salt Lake City, and both Missoula County and City SWAT officers are involved, said Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen.
Law enforcement officers from the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. marshals, and both state and federal parole and probation also joined the search.
Ibsen said teams would focus on the draws where Burgert may have fled after leaving his vehicle, with searchers walking a grid to find clues.
"They'll be looking, obviously, for the guy - and for anything that doesn't fit," Ibsen said.
Officers and deputies also checked vacant homes and cabins in the area, and warned people in the occupied homes to lock their doors and not to confront anyone who looked suspicious.
Meanwhile, the doors at the Lumberjack were decidedly unlocked. Owner Kella Babcock sent folks to Missoula to buy the extra food needed to feed 65 law enforcement officers working long hours with little sleep.
"This kind of threw a curve into things," Babcock said.
SWAT members are staying in some of the Lumberjack cabins, and the Babcocks' yard looks like a parking lot for an array of law enforcement vehicles, including an armored vehicle.
The Lumberjack is likely the safest place in western Montana, employees said Monday.
Authorities are worried about the area beyond it.
"Our biggest fear now is that he either accosts a citizen or he gets a lone officer at a traffic stop," Dominick said.
Given Burgert's history of disdain for law enforcement, all officers and deputies involved in the search are working in pairs, he said.
"It's unfortunate," he said. "Montana is the last best place and for some people who don't like the U.S. government or law enforcement, this is a place where they can
go and hide out. But Montana has law enforcement, too."
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, firstname.lastname@example.org or on CopsAndCourts.com.