Posted: 4/29/2001 3:35:08 PM EST
Theories abound on Fisher's disappearance
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 27, 2001
For those who relish mysteries and the outdoors, the ghostly disappearance of Robert Fisher is rapidly emerging as classic grist for campfire conversation.
If he fled to Arizona's backcountry, how long could he survive? Did he commit suicide? Is it possible that he is not the killer - that he was kidnapped and framed?
Or did he leave the state entirely? Could he be sipping a mai tai in Jamaica?
Theories overflow in outfitter stores and in backwoods bars. As with the popular TV show Survivor, outsiders cannot help musing about where they would hide, what they would do, how long they could last.
But survivalists, hunters, cavers and rangers agree on one point: If Fisher planned, he could hole up for weeks in the national forest north of Young, living in relative comfort.
"There's food, shelter and water out there," observed Deputy Tom Rasmussen of the Gila County Sheriff's Office. " . . . Who knows? He might be able to stay out there forever."
Jon Selby, a patrol officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said police suspect the slaying of Mary Fisher and her two children was premeditated. The victims' bodies were found April 10 after their home exploded in a purposely set natural-gas blast.
Authorities quickly began looking for Fisher and checking wilderness areas for the experienced hunter and outdoorsman. Their suspicions were bolstered 10 days later when a hiker reported seeing Fisher north of Cherry Creek, on the edge of the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
A Department of Public Service helicopter pilot spotted the family's Queensland heeler and Mary's Toyota 4Runner in the Naeglin Rim country. But Gila County sheriff's deputies found no one there. Over the next three days, SWAT teams with tracking dogs failed to find any sign of the fugitive. And Robert Fisher's disappearance crept toward legend.
Carl Douglass, manager of Christopher Creek Lodge near Payson, said he suspects the dog and vehicle were decoys.
"Yeah, we're all talking about it," Douglass allowed. " . . . I think that was a plant. It threw them (investigators) off the track and gave him time to go wherever."
"To actually think he's still up there, I don't believe that," agreed Tim Tanner, co-owner of a Scottsdale sporting goods store where Fisher shopped.
Like an old country song, much of the skepticism centers on a dog named Blue, found with a snout full of porcupine quills. If Fisher fled the area on foot, wouldn't his pet have followed? Does that mean he killed himself? Is it possible he hitched a ride out or did he have a second vehicle hidden in the forest?
Early assumptions were that Fisher saw the DPS helicopter and ran off. In that case, experts say, he might have carried enough food, warm clothing and other supplies to spend weeks in the wilds. Although Fisher reportedly suffers from severe back pain and wouldn't shoulder a heavy pack, he could supplement a small food supply with game in country populated by deer, elk, turkey, trout and crayfish.
"Is this guy dead in a couple of days? No," said Cody Lundin, survival expert with Aboriginal Living Skills in Prescott. "If he's motivated enough, that's the first factor. And, in this case, he's motivated by the desire not to get caught."
That was the case with Danny Ray Horning, a state prison escapee in 1992 who dodged authorities for eight weeks by living off the land and stealing supplies. Dary Matera, a Scottsdale author who tried to market a book on the escapade, said Horning's first meal after the escape was an owl that he killed in a cave and ate raw.
Horning got by, Matera noted, even though "he had nothing to start with. It's not like Robert Fisher, who has credit cards, money, a car . . . "
Survivalists say the key elements are water and warmth. Fisher bought purification gear the day before he vanished, and there is plenty of water in the rim country. If dressed properly, he could sleep during the day and hunker down or exercise to stay warm at night.
Lundin said there are few edible plants in the high country this time of year, and a murder suspect is not likely to risk exposing himself by hunting game. ("It's one thing to live off the land," he noted. "It's another thing to live off the land while you're being hunted yourself.") Outdoor experts point out that Arizona's wilderness is pocked with civilization.
"He's got stores and everything else within a one-day walk," Tanner said, including summer cabins where he could break in and steal grub.
As for shelter, limestone caves snake through the rim country like holes in Swiss cheese. Ray Keeler of Glendale, vice president of the National Speliogical Society, said there are dozens of subterranean systems - many of which he has mapped.
"The chances are good that he was using the caves as shelter," Keeler said. "We have years of data on this area, but they (homicide investigators) haven't asked for it."
Keeler said he does not believe Fisher is an experienced spelunker, so he most likely would stay near a tunnel entrance. All of the area caves are extremely damp, with about 98 percent humidity and temperatures of around 50 degrees. Many provide refuge for bats and contain flowing water or sumps. While a man with good cold-weather gear might survive underground for days, Keeler said, caves make inhospitable hideouts.
"It's going to be cold and wet and miserable and ugly. But you're in a survivor mode."
If Fisher fled underground when the DPS helicopter began hovering overhead, he could have gotten lost or suffered hypothermia in the underground maze.
Matera, who recently wrote a book on deceased children contacting their parents from the afterlife, also said suicide is a possibility for a man faced with the darkness of caves, the loneliness of a forest, the ravages of his mind.
"I think Robert Fisher is being haunted," Matera added. " . . . That's what'd drive him to kill himself."
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602) 444-8874.
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