The Case of the Vanishing Park Ranger to be Reopened After Almost 40-Years

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ranger, disappeared
Paul Fugate was 41 when he disappeared without a trace. Credit: Adventure Journal

On January 13, 1980, Paul Fugate, a 41-year-old park ranger at Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, walked out of the visitor center for an afternoon hike and was never seen or heard from again, writes Adventure Journal.

Fugate, a bearded and bespectacled man wearing his ranger uniform and badge, headed on a nature trail toward Faraway Ranch, a chunk of land new to the NPS that preserved a bit of Apache history on the frontier. When Fugate failed to return, a major search and rescue effort kicked into gear involving the local Cochise County Sheriff Department, members of the US Forest Service, the BLM, and the NPS. Dogs were brought in, helicopters searched from the air, Fugate’s friends and family helped the rescuers search on foot. Several SAR efforts were made, despite Chiricahua being a nightmare location for searching, being a dry, vast, and rugged land, riven everywhere with canyons and river washes.

Nothing of Ranger Fugate was ever found. Not a trace.

ranger, disappeared
Credit: Adventure Journal

There are rumors a driver—a friend of Fugate—saw him seated in a truck between two men speeding on a country road heading away from Chiricahua, but nothing concrete emerged. Investigators almost immediately declared they suspected foul play and the NPS began paying a portion of Fugate’s salary to his widow. They also announced a $5,000 reward for solid leads about what may have happened to Fugate. Eventually, the family matched that sum, and it grew to $20,000. But still, no answers ever surfaced to bring closure to the strange case. The FBI declined to intervene in the investigation.

Some acquaintances of Fugate believe he’d accidentally walked into a drug deal, and spooked the participants with his government uniform, he was killed or kidnapped. According to a 1981 New York Times article about Fugate’s disappearance, law enforcement groups were aware of drug dealing and trafficking in the area around Chiricahua. Rumors too of a difficult marriage surrounded Fugate’s disappearance, with some wondering if he’d simply walked away from his life.

But late last month, the NPS announced it had discovered new information about Fugate’s case, and, together with the Cochise County Sheriff Department, is again soliciting help from the public in solving the mystery. The NPS also announced it was tripling the financial award offered for concrete leads to $60,000. It provided no other information, however, about what’s prompted it to reopen the case.

Investigators are collecting tips and information and can be reached by:

• Phone—NPS Investigative Services Branch: (888) 653-0009
• email:
• submit a tip online:
• Facebook: @InvestigativeServicesNPS; Twitter: @SpecialAgentNPS

You can read this article in its entirety at Adventure Journal.

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