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Anti-government activist David Burgert, long a jabbing thorn in the side of law enforcement authorities, confounded them by vanishing into the woods.

In 2002.

The disappearance designed to convince folks that Burgert – who had left his wife and was hiding out with his girlfriend – was dead eventually led to an armed standoff with Burgert, the discovery of an anti-government group with an allegedly deadly plan, and federal prison sentences for Burgert and others.

But even Burgert’s spectacularly failed attempt to fake his own death more than a decade ago has been overshadowed by his 2011 second act.

That, of course, is when he led Missoula County sheriff’s deputies on a strange slow-speed chase west along U.S. Highway 12 and off onto Graves Creek Road, waving at patrons at the Lumberjack Saloon shortly before abandoning his tan Jeep Cherokee, shooting at – and missing – the deputies, and once again disappearing into the woods.

Despite repeated searches and even a feature on “America’s Most Wanted,” Burgert remains missing.

“We’ve got nothing on David, not even any hunches that we’re following up on, unfortunately,” said Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Jason Johnson.

Frank Garner, security chief at the Northwest Healthcare campus in Kalispell, said that “the only guy on the planet who knows where David Burgert is, is Dave Burgert.”

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Garner was Kalispell’s chief of police back in 2002, a job that brought him into frequent and unwelcome contact with Burgert, along with an undesirable spot on a so-called hit list formed by the group known as Project 7.

Burgert headed the group, which took its name from Flathead County’s “7” designation on Montana license plates. It gained national notoriety in 2002 when Burgert was located after a standoff during which he manned a machine gun. He’d only been missing for about a month.

The group’s infamy heightened with reports of the hit list, its purpose apparently being to spark a war with the U.S. government by killing local officials and law enforcement officers, including the dogcatcher, according to published reports.

“If you read this in a book, you’d wonder what goofball cooked it up,” Garner said, “other than there are real flesh-and-blood characters involved – with guns.”

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Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry – who, as undersheriff in 2002 also was on Project 7’s list – thinks Burgert is likely dead.

“Dave Burgert is not the sort of man that can remain low profile or fall off the face of the Earth. It’s just not his style,” Curry said. “If I were to guess, I’d guess he’s not alive.”

Tom Esch, who was Flathead County attorney at the time, frequently saw Burgert in the courtroom, often for disputes arising from minor encounters such as traffic stops.

“Difficult … maybe a little grandiose,” Esch termed Burgert. “He was the center of the universe. Things revolved around him.”

Garner likewise termed Burgert unpleasant. “I always tried to go out of my way to try to talk to him because I felt like there needed to be somebody who could,” Garner said. “But it was work. He never made it easy, not even on the most routine encounter.”

Although most of Burgert’s run-ins with law enforcement involved bombast, and the alleged Project 7 murder plot never came to fruition, Garner cautioned against any tendency to write off Burgert as simply a lot of hot air.

Remember, he said, Burgert tried to shoot two law enforcement officers in Missoula County. And he has a long and troubling criminal history, starting with a home invasion and rape in Alabama, Garner said.

“This is not a nice man,” he said. “Outside of all the bizarre tales, faking his death, and the drama the guy injected into everything he did, the guy is a career criminal who did some really bad things.”

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Kandi Matthew-Jenkins of Missoula, perennial political candidate and Constitution Party activist, knows a different David Burgert.

“A person more than willing to do everything to help. A person to stand up for constitutional rights,” said Matthew-Jenkins, who said she attended some of Burgert’s federal court proceedings, and saw him occasionally after his release from prison.

Burgert would stop by her place and they’d talk, she said – stressing repeatedly that she has no idea where Burgert is.

“I had never heard anything about him being mean or hurtful,” she said. “…The person they describe going past the Lumberjack, now that’s David Burgert. Just putzing along, waving, and avoiding an area where somebody could get hurt. That guy, I know.”

As to information released by law enforcement after his most recent disappearance that Burgert sometimes dressed in women’s clothing and was attracted to men – Matthew-Jenkins said “that one is way out the window!”

Unlike Curry, Matthew-Jenkins thinks – or at least she hopes – Burgert is still alive. She said she’s been in touch with Burgert’s mother in Alabama and “she’s worried sick. … We could kind of commiserate our sorrow.”

Garner remains skeptical that Burgert has lasted this long without resurfacing.

“Certainly, this will be the longest period of time he’s kept this mouth shut in my experience with him,” he said. “That is completely unlike him. So, I’ll let people draw their own conclusions.”

Ultimately, said Jason Johnson, the Missoula County sheriff’s detective, the question of whatever happened to David Burgert “is just one of those mysteries that might haunt us forever.”

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Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

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