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Where in the World is Paul Fugate?


Stone columns in Chiricahua National Monument. Photo by Urban via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been nearly 30 years since ranger Paul Fugate disappeared while patrolling the wilds of Chiricahua National Monument. What happened to him remains a mystery to this day.

When a ranger on solo patrol in a remote area of a national park fails to return, the event rarely becomes what you’d call a true disappearance. Search and rescue procedures being as good as they are, a ranger who’s lost, stranded, or injured can reasonably expect to be rescued in pretty short order. Even if the missing person is no longer alive, remains are typically found within a few days, weeks, or months.

But sometimes the best efforts of the searchers are not good enough. Years can go by before remains are discovered, often quite by chance and in unexpected places. And sometimes remains are not found at all. Rangers can, and do, disappear.

The most publicized case of this sort was the disappearance of Randy Morgenson, a seasonal law enforcement ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. In 1996 Randy set out on a foot patrol in the Kings Canyon backcountry and never returned. After an exhaustive search failed to locate him, investigators were left to ponder a lot of intriguing questions. Could Randy have walked away from an unhappy marriage? Had his discontent with the NPS treatment of seasonal backcountry rangers marred his judgment? Why would Randy, a commissioned law enforcement ranger, leave his weapon behind in his backcountry tent when he left to go on patrol? Why had there been no radio communications from him? You can read more of the fascinating details in The Last Season, a carefully research book written by Eric Blehm.

Five years after Randy disappeared his remains were finally recovered near a stream bed in the Kings Canyon backcountry. Investigators concluded that he had probably tried to cross the stream on a snow bridge, broke through, slid down under the snow, and was unable to extricate himself from the place where he stopped sliding. Since Randy’s death appeared to be accidental, most of the questions that had nagged investigators were laid to rest.

Unfortunately, there has been no such closure in the case of a ranger who went missing in Chiricahua National Monument almost three decades ago. Early in 1980, law enforcement ranger Paul Fugate left his residence for a foot patrol in the Chiricahua backcountry and didn’t come back.

When Paul did not return from this patrol, the park and then the NPS and the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department mounted extensive SAR efforts to find him, but these efforts turned up nothing. Searching in Chiricahua is certainly no picnic. The park sprawls over 12,000 acres and has complex terrain with numerous canyons, arroyos, and barrancas.

The same kinds of questions that dogged searchers in the Randy Morgenson case troubled the people trying to figure out what happened to Paul Fugate. Did rumors of marriage problems have anything to do with this disappearance? Had Paul been killed after stumbling onto a drug smuggling or illegal immigration operation? Had he decided that the NPS was too conservative for him and just walked away?

The latter notion was born of the fact that Paul had been known as a bit of a non-conformist. He was, for example, one of the first rangers who pushed the boundaries on the Park Service's conservative grooming standards.

Howard Chapman, then-Western Regional Director, was driven to distraction by this disappearance. These kinds of mysteries were not supposed to occur on his watch! In 1986, Chapman commissioned Pete Nigh, one of the NPS's top criminal investigators, and an Arizona Department of Public Safety investigator to review the files and determine if there was anything else that needed to be done.

Meanwhile, the NPS refused to certify that Fugate was dead. Among other things, this meant that Paul’s widow Dotty could not collect survivor’s benefits.

Nigh and the DPS investigator spent a week reviewing the files of both the NPS and the Cochise County Sheriff's office. After combing every piece of paper connected with the case, reviewing the witness statements, and examining the SAR records, they concluded that there was no evidence to indicate that Paul had walked away from his job and was elsewhere.

If Nigh's report didn’t put the question of Paul Fugate’s whereabouts to rest, it did contribute a measure of closure. Based on the findings of this exhaustive review, Dotty's application for survivor's benefits was subsequently reviewed and approved.

To the best of my knowledge, other than a couple instances in Alaska where NPS personnel were involved in an aircraft accident that went down over water, Paul Fugate is the only modern NPS employee whose death is still a mystery and whose remains have not been recovered.

This doesn’t mean that Paul’s remains will never be found. Someday, perhaps, a backcountry hiker will find them and solve a huge mystery.


Wow, fascinating, if sad, story. Thanks for it. :)


My travels through the National Park System:

Her name is Dody, not Dotty. Is that an example of how carefully the investigation was done?

Sorry, Anon. We were working from memory since neither of us has access to the NPS or police files. I am sure you are right and I apologize for the mistake. Please be assured that it was our error, not an error on the part of either the NPS or the Sheriffs Department.

Rick Smith

Thanks, Rick for this update on the Fugate case. I remember reading a quite lengthy article in the L.A. Times in 1983 about the case and some of the background information that you mentioned. The speculation was that he was abducted by criminals when he stumbled into an illiegal activity. I seem to recall mention in the article of witnesses who thought they saw Mr Fugate in the company of possible criminal types several days after he vanished. This was never confirmed. The Chiricahua National Monument is so rugged that a plane that vanished there in 1956 was not found until a back country hiker stumbled into the wreckage in 1965.

My father was in the western region at the time of Mr. Fugate's dissappearance. We were at the Tumacacori National Monument and as a child I well remember him as well as his disappearance. The Fugates were a wonderful couple and although we did not visit them often, it was always fun to visit. I do remember that the famous "fugate ponytail" was quite a controversy in the Park Service at that time. He was viewed (at least by my very conservative dad) as somewhat of a renagade but a very competant and knowledgable ranger also. My hope is that Mrs. Fugate has been able to move on and have a fulfilling life. Great Story

There are a number of mines, caves in the park. Has the NPS ever carried out a thorough search of these places for human remains?

Yes, most of the accessable mines were searched. The work by SARA (Southern Arizona Search and Rescue) was exhaustive.
There will be a Memorial for Paul at Chiricahua on January 13th 2010.
I have moved forward but not 'on' unfortunately, without closure there is no end.

Dody Fugate

I was involved in the search for Paul Fugate rather heavily, as both an NPS employee and an active member of SARA. Just a few comments:

Paul was hardly "patrolling the wilds of Chiricahua National Monument". About 3 PM on a Sunday afternoon, he had left the Visitor Center to "check the nature trail" - a very common activity on a slow afternoon when you are caught up on your work and you need to stretch your legs a bit.

This, of course, makes his disappearance all the more perplexing...

If Howard Chapman was "driven to distraction by Paul's disappearance," he managed to conceal it rather well. I would characterize the Regional Office support during the first two weeks of the search effort as lukewarm, at best. I vividly recall talking to an official at Scott Air Force Base, after a long day in the field searching, about getting some high tech assistance from the military. Putting the phone down, I wondered why these avenues were not actively being pushed by the Regional Office and why we in the field had to take the initiative. Some weeks after Paul's disappearance, a detective in the Regional Office commented publicly that "Paul was probably sitting on a beach somewhere in Mexico with a girlfriend," a comment that infuriated those of us who were working on the case, but that statement seemed to typify the attitude in San Francisco. I imagine that the Fugate case did indeed become distracting as the years rolled by.

We did indeed search caves and mines in and around the Monument. This involved special training by the Arizona Bureau of Mines in self contained breathing apparatus and some touchy moments in the Hilltop Mine, a very extensive working near the Monument. At that point, we were thinking that Paul had run into a drug deal, and his body had been dumped somewhere outside the Monument. Quien sabe?

Working out of Tucson at the Arizona Archeological Center, I had visited Chiricahua about two weeks before Paul's disappearance. Paul had just been reinstated and I expected to walk into a snake pit. To my surprise and gratitude, the office was very mellow. I was alone with Paul for about two hours while he showed me a spectacular prehistoric basket that had just been discovered a a rock shelter near headquarters . I am sure that if he were truly disgruntled, there would have been some sign.

That rock shelter was the last place I visited on the final day of the initial search operations. Coming down the hill to the visitor center, I was nearly in tears, because it was becoming clearer and clearer that we weren't going to find Paul.

I am sorry I missed his memorial service. I would have attended, had it been possible.

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