Twenty years ago this weekend, an explosion rocked a quiet southern Scottsdale neighborhood in the morning hours, sparking a house fire that sent flames over 20 feet into the air.
As the home burned, no one – neighbors, police or firefighters – knew that the inferno concealed a grizzly crime scene that has remained unsolved for two decades and made Scottsdale resident Robert Fisher a fixture on the FBI’s most wanted list of fugitives to this day.
The Fisher home, which was located east of the intersection of Oak Street and Scottsdale Road, caught on fire around 8:30 a.m. on April 10, 2001 following an explosion caused by a cut natural gas line. Investigators later found that an accelerant had also been spread around the home.
When the flames were extinguished, they found the bodies of Fisher’s wife Mary Fisher, 38, and their children, Brit tney, 12, and Bobby 10.
Robert Fisher and the family dog Blue were nowhere to be found.
All three bodies were discovered in bed with their throats slashed. Mary Fisher had also been shot in the back of the head.
To this day, Robert Fisher, who would be 59 if he is still alive, remains the only suspect and investigators have no credible information on his whereabouts or whether he is dead or alive.
The last confirmed sighting of Fisher came from an ATM camera at 10:43 p.m. the evening before the explosion. Fisher can be seen withdrawing $280, the maximum allowable amount at the time.
Mary Fisher’s Toyota 4Runner is visible in the background.
Police did not name Fisher a suspect in the murders until three days after the fire.
A week later, an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter spotted Mary Fisher’s 4Runner 140 miles north of Scottsdale in the remote Hellsgate Wilderness north of Young, Arizona. Blue, the family dog, was also with the vehicle.
Fisher, an avid outdoorsman, was known to frequent the area for hunting and recreation.
Dozens of officers with local, state and county law enforcement agencies descended on the isolated location and conducted a multi-day manhunt.
Police officials first speculated that Fisher had disappeared into one of the many caves in the area.
“We believe the dog won’t leave his master. We’re banking on it,” said Bill Fogle, who was the chief deputy of Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
But after days of searching, they found no sign of Fisher, leaving investigators and the public to question whether he was dead or alive.
A Scottsdale tragedy
The murders were a blow to the community and resulted in an outpouring of grief from family, friends, neighbors and fellow members of the Scottsdale Baptist Church, where the Fishers were active congregants.
“They had a lot of friends here. They were loved,” Executive Pastor Steve Daniels told the Scottsdale Tribune in the days after the tragedy.
Mary Fisher was a devout churchgoer and helped lead the children’s ministry.
Brittney, a student at Supai Middle School, was a basketball player and had recently been inducted into the National Junior Honor Society.
Her brother Bobby, a student at Pima Elementary, played baseball and was remembered by friends as a goofball with a unique sense of humor.
Friends and family also remembered Robert Fisher as a family man, kind neighbor and devout Christian.
Neighbor Don Kuhbander told the Tribune that after he became paralyzed, Fisher volunteered to mow his lawn.
Mary Fisher’s father Bill Cooper, who has since passed away, pleaded with the public not to jump to conclusions about his son-in-law.
“Pray for my son – he was my son too,” Cooper said a week after the murders. “Don’t judge Robert, just know this was God’s way. We know this is a tragedy, but more will be revealed.”
The investigation revealed that Fisher was something of an enigma and that there were indications of trouble in his household.
A neighbor reported hearing a loud argument in the Fisher home around 10:30 p.m. on April 9, shortly before Fisher was captured on camera removing money from the ATM.
According to Scottsdale Police documents, while some friends described him as a devout father and family man, others painted a different picture of Fisher.
Several individuals interviewed by police told detectives that Robert had cheated on Mary on at least one occasion and one acquaintance described him as having a “wandering eye.”
Some friends told police that Fisher never or rarely drank alcohol, but another friend said “Robert was always one to start something with other people. Robert often started fights, especially when he was drinking.”
Investigators also found that Robert was deeply impacted by his own parents’ separation when he was a child and had an aversion to divorce, suggesting a potential motive for his alleged crimes.
Disappearance captivates many
In the years since the disappearance, the case has taken on a mythological quality and theories about his whereabouts abound.
Some believe Fisher took his own life in one of the countless remote caves that dot the Hellsgate Wilderness while others think he escaped out of state or out of the country.
Still others speculated Fisher relied on his knowledge of the land to survive off the grid in northern Arizona.
In the years since Fisher’s disappearance, there has been no shortage of reported sightings and potential leads.
In 2004, Canadian police arrested a Canadian citizen who lived near the U.S. border after a neighbor reported him due to an “uncanny” resemblance to Fisher.
“Canadian officials said the look-alike shared Fisher’s height, weight, eye color and had the same scar on his lower back,” according to the Tribune.
However, the man was released after his fingerprints did not match Fisher’s, which are on file with the U.S. Navy.
At the time, Canadian police floated
a theory that the Canadian citizen actually assumed Fisher’s identity in the U.S. and then fled back to Canada following the murders, but U.S. officials dismissed the theory.
“That’s absurd,” FBI special agent Bob Caldwell told East Valley Tribune. “We know who Robert Fisher is…We’ve tracked Robert Fisher throughout his life. His parents – we’ve had contact with them the whole time.”
In 2014, police in Colorado raided a home after receiving reports that Fisher was hiding out there.
But again, the tip turned out to be bogus. Police arrested two men at the scene on firearm and drug charges but found no sign of Fisher.
“Over the years, we’ve had several really good look-alikes, individuals that look very, very similar and very much resembled Robert Fisher,” said FBI Special Agent Taylor Hannah, who has been assigned to the Fisher case for about a year.
Previous agents “absolutely ran all of those into the ground,” Hannah said. “They positively identified those individuals and obviously they came back that they were not Robert Fisher.”
While the case is 20 years old, investigators said new tips are coming in.
“We get tips every week,” Hannah said.
Scottsdale Police Detective John Heinzelman, who has been on the case for six years, said he usually receives new tips once or twice a week.
He treats every call as a potential new lead and vets the caller to determine how viable the information is.
“Is it a good potential that we need to follow up in-person or can we identify them as somebody else and rule them out more or less,” Heinzelman said.
Both Hannah and Heinzelman are charged with the seemingly impossible task of vetting each new tip and attempting to solve this uniquely complicated case.
For Heinzelman, it’s really two cases.
“Because it’s the case itself, the actual homicide, which is pretty much done until we’d find somebody or until we can actually bring them in and interview and those things,” he said. “The rest of it becomes a sort of fugitive apprehension to say who is Robert Fisher? Where would he have gotten to? Did he have help? And, if so, is he local? Is he hidden somewhere in plain sight? Is he out of the country?”
The investigators said they are concentrating on going back through old the entire case file in an attempt to turn up some piece of overlooked evidence.
Hannah said she avoids adopting “pet theories” or giving into the mythology of the case and instead has combed through both the FBI and Scottsdale Police case files.
“And I wanted to basically come up with a plan to continue this investigation based off of those facts opposed to kind of the mythology that has developed over the years,” she said.
So far, nothing has shed light on what happened to Robert Fisher.
“We have not had a verified sighting that we can say ‘yes, this was Robert Fisher’ after the ATM video,” Heinzelman said.
The 20-year investigation seems to have turned up more questions than answers.
Some acquaintances described Fisher as a survivalist with the skills to survive long stretches in the wilderness.
One friend – whose name was redacted in police reports – told detectives that Fisher considered himself a “paramilitary” and “goes out with his buddies and plays war games in the woods.”
He also told police that Fisher was an avid hunter, proficient with weapons and that Fisher told him that at least once a year he would go into the woods and live by himself.
But others painted a different picture.
Kuhbander, the neighbor, told the Scottsdale Tribune he used to go hunting with Fisher.
“He’s not that rugged,” Kuhbander said. “He had some pretty bad back problems. Last time we went hunting he was miserable – his knee was really hurting him bad.”
Fisher, a Navy veteran and former firefighter, suffered back issues from damaged discs and police reports suggested he may have struggled with an opioid addiction connected to the injury.
Investigators continue to grapple with these disparate descriptions of their lone suspect.
“It’s difficult because I would hate to close a door or an avenue where we’re going,” Heinzelman said. “So the thoughts are he was a survivalist on one extreme all the way to no, he was just a weekend warrior and he liked to ride ATVs on the other extreme.”
For that reason, Heinzelman said he wants to avoid putting out a specific characterization of Fisher for fear that it would dissuade someone from calling in with pertinent information.
“I would hate to see somebody not call, because they would say ‘well, I don’t think he would do this after this long,’” he said. “He could be right under our noses and we just don’t realize it.”
Despite all of those open questions, Scottsdale Police and the FBI are still actively trying to answer the question: What happened to Robert Fisher?
“I think the message, especially for us locally, is that we’re still looking,” Heinzelman said. “By no means is it mothballed or put away in a closet.”