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Burgert was released from prison in March 2010. His mother had been to all the court hearings, had driven to spend Christmas with him at the federal medical prison in Rochester, Minn., and made once-a-month trips to the penitentiary he was later moved to in Talladega, Ala. Upon his release, she says she bought him some new clothes and drove with him to Missoula, where his probation officer was based and where he would try to begin his life again.
Richards remembers Burgert was happy for a time. She says he volunteered at the Missoula Food Bank and that he got an apartment on the Westside.
Kandi Matthew-Jenkins was relieved to see her friend out of prison.
“He showed up one day, and I just said, ‘Is that you?’” she recalls. “It was so good to see him safe.”
Eventually, Burgert got permission from his probation officer to go to work on a ranch in eastern Montana, killing gophers and mending fences. Richards says her son called her every day and once complained about the fact that the rancher he was working for wouldn’t allow him to dispose of a cow carcass laying in pasture. The sight upset him but the rancher thought it a waste of time to dispose of the remains. The men fought, and the rancher would later tell Missoula County deputies that Burgert had punched him, and that he didn’t press charges because he assumed Burgert would just come back to work. Richards says the rancher gave her son guns as payment. Law enforcement says Burgert stole them.
In late spring 2011, Burgert was back in Missoula County. Richards says he couldn’t afford his medication. John Rhodes saw his former client at the Ole’s gas station on Orange Street and could sense there was something wrong.
“We talked briefly, and it was apparent to me he wasn’t doing well,” Rhodes remembers. “I was concerned about his stability.”
- Cathrine L. Walters
By early June, Burgert was living in a camp near the Fort Fizzle recreation area on the banks of Lolo Creek. He stayed there for a few weeks, intermittently driving into town for groceries.
On the morning of June 12, someone called 911 and reported a suspicious-looking man camping in the day-use only area. Deputies Newsom and Schwindt were in Lolo responding to reports of vandalism when they got the call. They finished with the broken windows before heading to Fort Fizzle.
At around 11:30 a.m., as the deputies pulled into the Fort Fizzle parking lot, a man got into a blue Jeep Cherokee and took off in the opposite direction.
“He’s running from you,” Newsom told the in-training Schwindt, who was driving at the time.
Burgert left the pavement and took off down a muddy two-track that followed a string of power lines through the woods. The deputies got stuck and Newsom told Schwindt to get out so he could drive. Then Burgert got back on Highway 12 and headed west. By the time the Cherokee turned right on Graves Creek Road, the officers knew who they were dealing with.
How much of that day Burgert had planned in advance is open to speculation. Most likely, he had no idea sheriff’s deputies would show up at Fort Fizzle, even though he seemed ready when they did. Newsom recalls Burgert driving fast, but not erratically, as if he knew where he was going. (He also says journalists’ description of the chase as “slow-speed” was part of a media “template” in retelling the story.) Then-Undersheriff Mike Dominick received reports of someone fitting Burgert’s description getting in an argument with a county roads employee on Wagon Mountain Road a few weeks before.
As Burgert led the deputies down Graves Creek and then up Wagon Mountain, Newsom relayed their location over the radio. Backup was coming from Missoula, some 30 miles away.
“I had never been up that road,” Newsom says. “There isn’t even a road sign.”
At one point, where the road breaks from the trees, Burgert stopped and began to reverse. Newsom told Scwhindt to get ready to fire. Schwindt hopped out of the car, hoping to shoot out Burgert’s tires, but Burgert immediately proceeded forward again.
Less than a quarter mile later, Burgert turned off the road and began driving over sapling evergreens up a steep slope to a ridge that ran parallel to the road. The deputies continued down Wagon Mountain, scanning the ridgeline for any sign of Burgert. After 100 yards or so, Schwindt spotted him.
Newsom remembers Burgert looked calm as he strapped a fanny pack around his waste. He was holding a handgun.
As Newsom started up the hill toward Burgert he yelled at him to drop the gun. Newsom says Burgert—almost “calmly”—rested his arms on the Jeep’s hood and took aim. All Newsom could see was the top of Burgert’s head and the open barrel of his gun.
Investigators later recovered five shells from Newsom’s assault rifle. The distance between the deputy and Burgert’s Jeep was about 14 yards. Newsom can’t remember exactly how many shots Burgert fired—none of his shells were ever recovered—but he knows it was more than once and he knows Burgert shot first. He doesn’t know how he survived.
“I couldn’t get it out of mind that I could see inside his barrel,” he says. “And I didn’t get shot. I’m still alive.”
After Newsom fired his shots, Burgert disappeared. He and Schwindt, who had also fired several rounds, approached the Jeep slowly, thinking an injured or dead Burgert would be lying on the other side. But he was gone.
From where Burgert stood as he fired at Newsom, the view is quintessential Montana. To the north and west, dense pine forests carpet the hills before giving way to the charred landscape of an old wildfire. To the south, the craggy spine of the Bitterroot Mountains snakes its way down the Montana-Idaho border. But to the east, from that spot, a thick wall of new-growth spruce obscures everything. It was the only place Burgert could have gone, and when later that day dozens of Missoula law enforcement officers showed up on the scene, it was to the east that they began their search.