This Park Service Ranger was on duty at the Chiricahua National Monument Park visitors centre in Arizona. The date was 13th January 1980. Only one other member of staff was there that day as it was the off season. Mr Fugate, 41, said he would go and check a trail and if he was not back by closing time the part time clerk should lock up.
So at 2pm he headed into the park and from that time on no-one has been able to figure out what happened to him.
What is so fascinating about that you might well ask?
On the face of it very little. People go missing every week in the US outdoors. It has been a subject of articles on this website and is a big discussion point all over the web. On this occasion the mystery comes from a few slivers of information that came to light after the fact.
The Ranger left his radio behind but he did take his keys, presumably in case he returned after the clerk had gone. One of the theories that took the lead was he had deliberately disappeared. He left behind somethings that put a big bold hole in that line of thinking. He had over $300 in a billfold and his ID. Then again was it possible he had tricked everyone by doing just that? Those items were in the visitor centre when he walked out.
It is more than possible that Mr Fugate walked towards a historic building called the Faraway Ranch which is located about a mile west of the visitor centre.
So the theories? One scenario from a psychic was he saw two men dragging an incapacitated woman and was killed. Another was some sort of drug deal he witnessed and then he had to be silenced. Then there was the chance he had fallen injured somewhere and of course that he had simply walked out of his life.
The Park Service initiated a search and found nothing in one version I have read. In another they found signs of a scuffle. Officially they ruled it that Mr Fugate had gone off of his own accord. Just over a year later they demanded the pay they had given his wife in the time he had been missing. This meant she also lost ‘in service death benefits’. It took years of fighting through the courts to get the Park Service to u-turn on that decision.
There is more, a lot of it. The head of the original investigation, even up to a few years ago, was convinced that the Park Ranger had vanished deliberately. A later investigator, who had helped Mrs Fugate reverse the financial issue, was convinced Mr Fugate had been murdered. Apparently this guy also put some belief in the psychic’s vison.
Hundreds of leads were followed and in 2017 a writer called Brendon Borrell wrote an extensive article on all the twists and turns. He was in close contact with the last of three prominent investigators into the disappearance.
Witnesses, right or wrong, kept the theories in the air over the years and the journalist recounts many of those aspects.
What about the man in question?
Mr Fugate had an open relationship with his wife of 16 years. She lived in Tucson a two hour drive away. When he was working he lived near the visitor centre in a simple stone hut. Indeed it seems that Mr Fugate was pretty good at living a simple life. He also was a bit of a round peg in a square hole. He had had issues with authority within the service and had been terminated as far as employment went. After a legal fight of five years he was reinstated. He wore his uniform in his own style and sported a drooping moustache despite being told not to. He is also roundly reported to have liked a smoke of marijuana along with a serious desire to understand the wild nature of the place he worked.
That night he was to share his accommodation with a part time park employee with whom he was having a relationship. It was she who raised the alarm when he did not return.
You have here what you would call a character.
In the weeks leading to his disappearance a few unsettling things have been alleged. One was that he had been reluctant to talk about things that he had always enjoyed before. This comes from a Youtube video I watched but it is backed up by something in Mr Borrell’s article. A work colleague described how the ranger had suddenly given him his rifle for no apparent reason.
The relationship he had with a female employee, who was half his age, also threw him a curve ball in the days before he went for his final walk. She thought she may have been pregnant. In this she had more hesitancy than you would expect. Apparently Mr Fugate had told her he had had a vasectomy. Given that the only one who could have been the father was him she was left wondering. She asked him if vasectomies could reverse themselves. He said he didn’t know.
(a side note is I had a look and apparently it can happen)
Later his wife and this lady were talking. It was his wife that said as far as she knew he had not had the procedure. It turned out she was indeed pregnant.
That is long winded and very much a maybe as the quoted source was his wife. That said imagine the pressure if you had lied about something like that? There you are in work where you have already had issues. You get a colleague pregnant after lying about a vasectomy. The open relationship rule had always been no emotional attachment according to his wife’s account. That would be a dark cloud that might mean you appear a bit depressed and you are tempted to take an exit stage south.
On the other side of this was an employee who said they saw him that afternoon. This guy was off duty and passing near to the visitors centre. He believes he saw Mr Fugate sat between two other men and looking despondent. All three were in a pick up truck driving in the opposite direction.
Another witness was a man who had been on a course with Mr Fugate. He was sitting in a bar sometime after the ranger went missing. This was in Sierra Vista 83 miles 134 km to the south of the park. He says he saw Mr Fugate and when Mr Fugate saw him he exited quickly. This witness felt the need to bag a glass the man had been holding. Alas it turned out for some reason the Park Service had never recorded the missing man’s fingerprints.
Also there were many confessions to killing Mr Fugate or rather confessions to knowing who had killed him. None of these got anywhere. A theory came out that maybe his wife had something to do with it. Equally that had no substance.
So was this guy murdered? If I had to guess I would say he took off to be honest, yet I couldn’t come up with any evidence. In fairness to me that appears to be the case either way on this. Ideas are plenty, hard evidence is very rare.
If my words have done nothing more than get you interested in this case then I would recommend Mr Borrell’s article. It is a long read yet very well put together.
Mr Fugate is the only Ranger in the service’s history to disappear and never be found. Given the terrain they work in it seems logical that some will die in the line of duty. Yet there has always been an explanation. They did not hold back on the initial search and the case has been reviewed though nothing? That does indicate some exceptional circumstances.
In Canada one missing Park Service employee that springs to mind who was never found is Stephanie Stewart. In that situation though the missing person was in the ranger station ( a fire watch place) and there were signs of foul play.
Any thoughts on this? It has me relatively beaten to be honest.
I have looked at wilderness disappearances before and a few of those cases are:
( If you type in missing suspicious into the search box you will find more)
The below are first Mr Borrell’s article and then the Charley Project entry.