Far-right cell in Mont. might be comical if not for weapons cache, deadly aims

Militia said to hatch plan for `all-out revolution'

March 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KALISPELL, Mont. - As its secrets began to spill out here last week, Project 7 sounded suspiciously like a Monty Python sketch.

A dogcatcher was on its list of 26 local law enforcement officials who needed killing. The chief intelligence gatherer for the furtive far-right militia cell was a cleaning woman, according to Sheriff James R. Dupont of Flathead County, who appeared on the hit list of Project 7. The militia's name comes from the Montana license plate numbering system, which uses the numeral 7 to identify residents of Flathead.

The cleaning woman, Tracy Brockway, 32, was having an affair with the leader of Project 7 in a house bristling with 35 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, the sheriff said. He identified the militia's leader as David Earl Burgert, 38, whose last known job was renting snowmobiles, who could often be heard carping about judges on a local right-wing radio station and who has a long history of being annoying. At Christmas, when his neighbors lined streets with luminaria, Burgert mounted his snowmobile and snuffed them out.

"If you picture a schoolyard bully who has a big mouth, that would be Burgert," said Bruce Parish, a detective in the sheriff's office.

This far-northwest corner of Montana, along with the nearby northern neck of Idaho, has for decades been incubating right-wing militias, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. Many of them have demonstrated an outsize appetite for military hardware and survival gear.

Kalispell (population 17,000) might seem an unlikely staging ground for militias bearing grudges. It is the county seat of Flathead County, one of the fastest-growing communities in Montana and a pristine outdoor destination that includes half of Glacier National Park and more than 1 million acres of mountain wilderness.

The town is perched on the northern edge of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the West and one of the cleanest lakes in the world.

Yet a decades-old decline in an economy based on logging and mining, combined with the rise of a New West culture dominated by affluent professionals and retirees who go outside not to work but to recreate, has left many local people confused, resentful and looking for someone to blame.

Project 7 appears to have set a new standard, both for zany scapegoating and for industrial-strength firepower.

"This is the weirdest, most violence-prone thing we have seen in Montana for a long time," said Ken Toole, a Democratic state senator who runs the Montana Human Rights Network, which studies right-wing movements in Montana and Idaho.

"There is a comic element to these people," Toole said. "But it washes away pretty quickly because of the guns."

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are taking it all seriously.

On Friday, after a long meeting with the county sheriff and the police chief in Kalispell, the FBI took charge of the conspiracy investigation into possible links that Burgert might have had with other right-wing groups. The ATF took charge of tracking all the weapons.

After a tip early last month from a Project 7 defector, the sheriff's department found two trailers packed with 30,000 rounds of ammunition, a broad array of small arms, body armor, pipe bombs, exploding booby traps, bomb-making chemicals, and a vast inventory of survivalist gear and military rations.

"I think it would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy all that stuff at once," Parish said. "So it is very possible that it was built up over several years."

What Project 7 was gearing up for, said the defector who tipped off the sheriff, was a round of assassinations in early summer.

The sheriff's department discovered a list of what appeared to be targets that included local judges, the county prosecutor, the Kalispell chief of police, members of a police swat team and the dogcatcher.

Some of the targets worked at a police station in the nearby town of Whitefish, where Brockway was employed. The sheriff said she had apparently sifted through trash baskets, gleaning information about where some officers filled their prescriptions and how others struggled with their weight. The sheriff's department found information sheets detailing her discoveries.

"The logic of their plan, if you can call it logic, was that by killing local law enforcement people, the state of Montana would have no choice but to send in the National Guard," Dupont said. "Then they hoped to wipe out the National Guard. And then they hoped that NATO troops would be sent in, and that would trigger an all-out revolution."

The sheriff and Parish rolled their eyes incredulously as they explained what Project 7 hoped to accomplish. They suggested that Burgert was a blowhard who had bitten off more than he could chew.

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