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.