The Search for a Ranger Who Was Lost and Never Found
Investigators, family, and friends are still trying to close the case of Paul Fugate, a naturalist at Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument who vanished without a trace in 1980. What keeps them motivated to stick with a mystery that may be unsolvable?
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Dody Fugate lives in a creaky, low-ceilinged prefab on seven acres of scrub outside Santa Fe. It was dark inside when I visited nearly two years ago. Navajo rugs were thrown over beige carpet matted with woodstove ash and animal feed. Mason jars were tucked into dusty bookshelves packed with cookbooks, novels, and archaeology texts.
In the garage sat a Ford pickup, the tires flat, which Dody and her husband, Paul, had driven home from the dealership in 1971. No pictures of Paul were anywhere that I could see, but his presence was all around. There was the old nameplate from his desk: “Paul B. Fugate, Park Ranger.” And pinned to the wall was a bumper sticker, white letters on a forest green background. “Where is Paul Fugate,” it read. The absence of a question mark suggested less an inquiry than a demand.
It wasn’t until my second full day here that Dody—an elfin woman in her late seventies with hip-length hair streaked gray—talked about the wrinkled work shirt and pair of jeans hanging on the back of a chair. She said they were Paul’s “civvies,” the street clothes he would have changed into after finishing work on the last day he was ever seen, four decades ago. She had no idea how long they’d been there. “People respond to these traumas in many ways,” she said when I commented on the disordered state of her home. “For a long time, I went into another dimension. I went nuts.”
Paul was last seen around 2 P.M. on Sunday, January 13, 1980, when he stepped out of the visitor center at Chiricahua National Monument, in southeastern Arizona, wearing his standard Park Service uniform and Red Wing boots and carrying a green down parka. “I am going to do a trail,” he announced to an aide. If he wasn’t back by 4:30, she should close up without him.
Paul was a monument naturalist who answered visitors’ questions, curated exhibits, and put together trail guides and plant lists. He was 41 then, and had a Texas twang, blue eyes, a woolly brown beard, and a ponytail that ran to his shoulders like a middle finger to his superiors. He was also known to smoke a joint when the mood struck him, and he chafed under the buttoned-down Park Service of that era. “Give ’em a bad time” was the Fugate family mantra. He had been fired from the monument once before but successfully sued to get his job back, to no one’s great pleasure—not even, really, his own.
Paul loved mountains as much as he despised bureaucracy. The Chiricahuas are part of a chain of isolated “sky islands” that rise more than 5,400 feet above the Sonoran Desert floor. Eroded tuff spires known as hoodoos peek out from ridgetop forests; spotted cats prowl the stone labyrinth below. The monument is named for the Chiricahua Apache, whose most revered leader, Cochise, waged a long war with the U.S. government in the late 1800s.
For all the monument’s hideouts, there were only so many areas one would normally patrol, with just an eight-mile-long, dead-end road, a single campground, and a system of trails that could be hiked in a single day. Paul didn’t bother taking his radio, ID, or billfold, or $300 worth of cash and checks. He didn’t even take his trusty pocket glass for examining plants.