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The Hunt for Robert Fisher: Man accused of murdering family, rigging Scottsdale home to explode still missing 20 years later

Robert Fisher, the Scottsdale man accused of killing his family and rigging his house to explode, remains on FBI’s Most Wanted List 20 years after the heinous crime.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It's a heinous part of Arizona's history. A family found dead after their Scottsdale home blew up in 2001.  

The only suspect in their murders? The family's father and husband, Robert Fisher, who hasn't been definitively seen since the night before the home explosion.  

Scottsdale police and the FBI still receive tips every week, but nothing's ever panned out.  

Here's a breakdown of the case and what investigators are doing to keep searching for answers.

Watch "The Hunt for Robert Fisher" on the 12 News YouTube channel below:

April 10, 2001

The call came in around 8:30 in the morning. A home explosion in Scottsdale off of 74th Place, near 74th and Oak streets. When crews got to the scene, video shows neighbors were already outside with garden hoses trying to tame the flames.

"I don’t think about it all the time but when it comes up, the images are very vivid and the memories come back pretty strong," says Pastor Gregg Cantelmo, who remembers seeing the smoke and flames leaping in the sky from nearby Scottsdale Baptist Church.

"A lot of trauma," he remembers.

Investigators soon revealed they found three people dead inside the home: 38-year-old Mary Fisher and her two children, 12-year-old Brittney and 10-year-old Bobby. Their father, Robert Fisher, was nowhere to be found.

At first, no one knew if Robert Fisher was inside, too.  Or whether he was at work, unaware of his family’s fate.  Police soon learned that Mary, Brittney and Bobby's throats were all slashed before the explosion and Mary was also shot in the back of the head, execution style.

Police officially named Robert Fisher as a suspect in his family's murders when he failed to show up in the days following their deaths.  

They traced his last known sighting to an ATM near the family's home in Scottsdale.  They say he took out $280.  ATM cameras show his wife Mary's missing Toyota 4 Runner in the background.

12 News video from the days following Mary, Brittney and Bobby's deaths shows an outpouring of support from the community.  Their cul-de-sac turned into a memorial site filled with balloons, signs, photos and other mementos in honor of the young family. 

"Wherever you are Robert, we love you," Mary's father, Bill Cooper, told reporters in 2001. "Just come home. I don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know anything for sure. But we’d like to hear from you. Please, Robert."

It’d be 10 days before his family got any more answers, that only led to more questions.

April 20, 2001

Investigators shifted their focus to Arizona's high country in the days following the explosion.  It was ultimately a tip from a camper that led police to Mary’s Toyota 4Runner tucked deep in the woods, east of Young, Arizona.  The SUV was wiped clean.  The family’s dog, Blue, found guarding it on the outside. Robert Fisher himself, nowhere in sight.

Search crews spent the next three days searching the rough terrain, which included dense woods and a system of caves.  They also encountered some snow that forced them to move carefully as not to mark up the area.

The massive manhunt eventually dead-ended in all directions, and remains that way 20 years later.

"The last true piece that we have is the vehicle," says Scottsdale Police Detective John Heinzelman.  

He's been on the case since 2014.  His counterpart at the FBI, Agent Taylor Hannah, took over their case a little more than a year ago.

"We don’t want him to feel we’re not out there looking for him anymore," Agent Hannah says. "That’s just not the case."

What both investigators are working to do now is revisit everything from their old case files.  Does anything stand out now that may have been overlooked then? Is there someone that didn't come forward? Does a witness they talked to years ago remember something new? To keep moving forward, they have to go back to the beginning.

The Brink of Divorce

"From the outside, this was a very picture perfect family," explains Agent Hannah.

The Fishers came to Scottsdale from California, where Robert worked as a firefighter, before injuring his back.  In Arizona, he worked as a surgical tech at the Mayo Clinic.  The entire family was deeply involved in Scottsdale Baptist Church, led by Pastor Gregg Cantelmo.

"Mary was very involved in the church," Pastor Cantelmo remembers.  "She served with the children’s ministry. Her children were friends with my children."

He says Robert would go to the men’s group on Tuesday nights.

"That makes it hard, too," he says now.  "You think, he was a part of the church. He was in my bible study. He knew better."

But what many people didn’t know then was that Pastor Cantelmo was counseling Robert and Mary through a rough time in their marriage.

"The issues weren’t anything radically different than what most people go through at some point," he says.  "I know 20 years ago everyone wanted to know 'Did you see something?' What might have been a clue that this would happen?' Never could at that point come up with anything and still don’t know what would bring those events to transpire."

Yet, it seemed the couple was on the brink of divorce, a precipice police say Robert vowed to avoid after struggling with his own parent’s split.  A neighbor reported to police he heard the couple arguing the night before the explosion.

"He didn’t want his family to succumb to the same fate as his parents, getting divorced," Agent Hannah explains.

But to murder your family and vanish?

"You could come up with 100 reasons," Pastor Cantelmo says.  "But none of them are good. No good answer to the why or the how."

Or the where.  Anyone who knew Robert then, knew he was an avid camper and hunter, verse in Arizona's wilderness.

"He was an outdoor kind of guy, an individualist, a survivalist," Pastor Cantelmo remembers.

He'd also been known to camp in the area of the Tonto National Forest where Mary's 4Runner would ultimately be found.  

The Theories

As for whether he was in the woods or made it out alive? The theories are endless.

"One of the prevailing theories is that he is, he’s a survivalist, he’s out there living in the woods," Detective Heinzelman explains.

But experts say those odds are not likely.

"To do that as an individual is usually a death card," says professional survival instructor Cody Lundin.

Lundin has been teaching survival skills for 30 years and knows first hand how improbable that theory can be.

For starters investigators say there hasn’t been any sign of someone living in the woods.  Lundin explains that every time a person takes a step, they're leaving a footprint.  It'd be tough to leave no trace if you're out in the woods.

Plus, the climate up in the north country can be unpredictable and harsh.

"Robert Fisher would have had to have some sort of shelter if he was in the woods at all," he explains.  "It’s high mountain country. He’s going to be dealing with snow, hypothermia, dehydration, etc."

Plus, most people on the lam are likely not focused on lunch.

"There’s not a lot of fat to live off the land out here in Arizona," he tells.

He shows us a bush that's starting to flower, but has no edible berries - at least not yet.

"This is about the time of year Robert was out," he says. "There’s nothing to eat here yet. There will be in two or three months."

Without access to steady food and shelter, this theory is low on the list for investigators

"That is in my mind - it’s a little far-fetched," says Agent Hannah.  "Is it a possibility? Maybe. But I think there are a lot of possibilities."

There's also a lot of speculation about the cave system near that part of the forest.  At the time, investigators found footprints leading to the mouth of a cave near where the 4Runner was parked.  Some people think he could have used a cave for cover before escaping the woods.  Others think he went in a cave to take his own life or somehow didn't make it out alive.

These caves might not be what you’re thinking.  Investigators say a lot of them start looking like holes.  Some dead-end.  Others span out in no clear direction, running for miles underground.

"Literally what we’re standing on is honeycombed underneath us," an investigator told a 12 News crew at the scene in 2001.

Because of their tough terrain, investigators had to bring in a sewer camera to look closer and threw in gas grenades to try and solicit any sign of life.

"There’s a possibility he may have fallen into something and he may have hurt himself or couldn’t get out," Detective Heinzelman says.

He adds that cave groups have searched for any evidence of Fisher over the years with no luck.  His remains, if they’re out there,  have never been found.

"If Robert Fisher died in the wilderness and we didn’t find his body, so what?," says Lundin.  "The body decomposes quickly, the bones are dispersed. Done deal. You’re never found again."

Another thought is that he ultimately left the woods.

As remote as it is, it’s a short walk to Young Highway and less than a mile from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

"That’s a sovereign nation," Detective Heinzelman says. "We need approval - we can’t go out there without their escort."

12 News video from the scene shows tribal investigators were initially involved in the search.  A ranger told 12 News in 2001 that they followed a set of tracks that led on to the reservation, but didn't see any trace of Fisher.

Heinzelman says it's possible Fisher knew how close he was to tribal land.

"I don’t think it would have been very difficult for him to know. If I just go over that and I keep just moving east, I’ll be some place they’re not going to go check for."

Keep in mind this is all a few months before the attacks on September 11, 2001.

"This was before the TSA, before heightened security for travel," Heinzelman says. "The opportunity for him to travel around, to board an airplane, to drive to Mexico is definitely there."

Early on investigators thought he could have stashed a get-away-car or hitched a ride.  If he was on foot, his dog Blue probably would have went with him.  But over time, nothing turned up.

"There’s no evidence he had any help," says Agent Hannah.

Due to technology at the time, investigators don’t even have Fisher’s full DNA profile.

"Maybe there are some unidentified remains in another county that prove to be Robert Fisher’s," Heinzelman says. "Maybe he gets picked up and arrested on another charge and he has a different name."

And if he is still alive out there, he might blend in.

"Robert Fisher, he doesn’t really stand out," says Agent Hannah. "He looks like the average guy."

You can see his FBI Most Wanted poster with age-enhancement here. 

He has a noticeably stiff gait from that firefighting injury, a scar on his back and a gold or missing tooth where one of his bicuspids would be.

"He could be living in a small town, where he gets paid cash and he works as a handyman," says Heinzelman. "Or he could be in a big city and blend in."

Fisher's cell phone shut off the night before the explosion.  It’s never turned back on.  And investigators say no one’s touched his bank account since that trip to the ATM.

"He just vanished," Heinzelman says.

There have been a lot of look-a-likes, like a hostile encounter with tourists in Guatemala in 2009 or a raid at a Colorado home in 2014.

Police even detained a man in Canada in 2004.  The man had the same build, same back scar, same gap where a gold tooth could be, but the fingerprints didn’t match.

Scottsdale police and the FBI still still say they get new tips every week. Nothing’s ever panned out.

'We haven’t had a verified sighting that we can turn back and say yes this definitely was Robert Fisher," Heinzelman says.  "It’s hard to think that he’s still alive but in my mind I have to believe that he’s still out there."

FBI's Most Wanted

Fisher was placed on the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted list in 2002, where he remains to this day.

"There’s a lot of mythology surrounding this case," Agent Hannah says. "It’s been ongoing for 20 years. People have all their pet theories. I wanted to make sure I really cut through that and got to the facts and the evidence."

Her next steps are to keep revisiting the old case file unless something new comes in.  She adds that investigators on the case before her had done a good job.  She would have taken the same steps they did.

"There wasn’t a lot left unturned," she says. "Now it’s just kind of revisiting a lot of those things. See if there’s people back then that didn’t come forward, or that we could re-interview."

The FBI’s latest push to the public was a set of age-enhanced photos of what Fisher could look like today, released in 2015.  He would be turning 60-years-old.

He's been the only suspect in this case and there's an active warrant out for his arrest.

The FBI is offering a $100,000 reward for tips that lead directly to the arrest of Robert Fisher.  He's still considered armed and dangerous.

To submit a tip, click here.