Montana scales back hunt for ex-militia leader

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 14, 2011 6:08 PM
Montana scales back hunt for ex-militia leader

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Authorities on Tuesday scaled back a manhunt in the mountains of western Montana for an ex-militia leader accused of mounting a gunfight with sheriff's deputies over the weekend.

David Burgert, 47, former head of an anti-government group known as Project 7 Militia, fled on foot into the rugged high country southwest of Missoula on Sunday after leading deputies on a high-speed chase that ended with a shootout.

No one was injured during the exchange of gunfire.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Missoula County Sheriff's Office, U.S. marshals and the FBI, combed the forested backcountry for two days before deciding to wait out Burgert and focus efforts on new leads or sightings.

Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick said searchers uncovered caches of weapons and supplies along an escape route Burgert likely marked out in advance of the confrontation.

Dominick said it was unclear if Burgert, on probation after being sentenced in 2004 to seven years in federal prison on weapons charges, is being aided by others.

The incident began on Sunday when Missoula County deputies sought to make contact with Burgert based on a report of a driver behaving erratically at a rest area. The driver, later identified as Burgert, sped off at the sight of patrol cars, running a stop sign, police said.

Burgert led officers for 30 miles before he brought his Jeep to a halt near a forest trailhead. He fired a handgun at deputies -- who returned fire -- before escaping into the woods with the firearm and a fanny pack.

Authorities said Burgert, a former Marine, has outdoor survival skills and is well-acquainted with the mountains of western Montana. Lawmen have warned area residents to beware of the fugitive, who they say is armed and dangerous.

Dominick said he does not believe Burgert's motive is to "commit suicide by cop."

"He wouldn't have run off and hid himself, he would have tried to force the deputies to shoot him," Dominick said.

As for Burgert's motivations, Dominick said investigators only know they are colored by a strong dislike for the justice system and its representatives.

Police have seized two of three vehicles believed to belong to Burgert. Authorities suspect he intended to use an SUV, which has not been found, as a getaway vehicle.

Project 7 Militia is categorized by the FBI as a domestic terrorist group whose members were violent extremists targeting police, judges and other government officials.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)