Dead or Alive? – Times Publications, January 2009
On April 9, 2001, Robert Fisher, a churchgoing father of two, had spent the day caring for patients at Scottsdale’s Mayo Clinic, where he worked as a respiratory therapist.
At the end of his shift, he picked up his 12-year-old daughter, Brittney, and drove her to the National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony where she was to be honored for her outstanding academic achievements. During the ceremony, Fisher grew impatient, and the two left before Brittney could collect her certificate.
Meanwhile, Fisher’s 38-year-old wife, Mary, had accompanied the couple’s 10-year-old son, Bobby, to a gun-safety class.
It is there that the known facts surrounding the final days of the Fisher family end.
The murderous rampage that followed devastated family and friends and left some of the nation’s top law-enforcement officials confounded – searching for shreds of evidence amid a tragic tale involving what outwardly appeared to be the all-American family.
When Mary returned home that evening, neighbors reported having heard the Fishers arguing loudly. In the predawn hours of the following morning, the family’s quaint three-bedroom south Scottsdale home suddenly erupted in a violent explosion so intense that it blew out portions of two brick walls and left the entire home engulfed in flames.
When the smoke cleared, firefighters made a grisly discovery among the charred remains: three bodies, each lying in a pool of blood.
The remains were identified as those of Mary and the two children. Authorities then confirmed that the three had not died in the fire, but shockingly had been the victims of a gruesome murder, all having had their throats slashed and Mary with a bullet lodged in the back of her head.
Mysteriously, Robert Fisher was nowhere to be found; police confirmed that a number of his possessions were missing, including clothing and his .38-caliber revolver.
Fire investigators would later learn that the explosion was caused when someone unhooked a gas line, placed a candle on a nearby table and poured fire accelerant down the hallway of the home.
Ten days later, police discovered Mary’s SUV on a dirt road about 150 miles north of the Valley, at a trailhead located in the Tonto National Forest. Curled up beneath the vehicle was Robert’s beloved dog, Blue, dehydrated and covered with pine needles.
Aside from periodic unconfirmed sightings of Fisher, the abandoned vehicle remains the last piece of evidence uncovered in the case.
Today, Robert Fisher, once a portrait of a churchgoing family man, remains the sole suspect in the murders and holds a place on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, his picture set beside the likes of terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Despite a long and intensive manhunt, what remains of one of the most notorious family murders in Arizona history is the enduring mystery surrounding what actually happened that April night. The past seven years have given rise to speculation among some about whether Robert Fisher is even still alive.
Those close to the Fisher family have all had to confront the fact that they had come to trust an evil man capable of an unthinkable crime against his own children. The Times interviewed several of those who had been close to the Fishers for this story, including the mother and father of Mary Fisher as well as FBI investigators still working on the case.
Did Robert Fisher Commit Suicide?
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s still out there,” says Bill Cooper, Mary’s father. “When you know it’s a cold case, that makes it even harder when you think about what he is doing out there. Is he remarried? Is he still living double lives? We just don’t know.”
In the days and weeks following the discovery of Mary’s SUV, there was suspicion that Fisher might have walked deep into the wilderness to commit suicide.
The forested area near Payson was searched for weeks in one of the state’s most intensive manhunts. Professional spelunkers from Tucson crawled through the area’s vast network of limestone caves, availing not one shred of physical evidence.
“I was thinking early on they would find some bones up there where they found his truck,” says Lori Greenbeck, a close friend of Mary’s and her former boss at H&L Medical Specialists in Scottsdale.
Over the years, Fisher’s disappearance and lack of any credible sightings have fueled speculation that he is dead, his remains having possibly been carried off by wild animals after a suicide.
Each year, there are about 30 to 50 cases of a spouse murdering their family – known as familicide to law enforcement. In over half the cases there is a suicide or attempted suicide following the murders, says Neil Websdale, a professor at the NAU Department of Criminal Justice and author of several books on domestic homicide.
“But most of the suicides occur at the scene or very close to the scene,” Websdale says. “It would be very unlikely that someone would take off and kill themselves in a remote location.”
With no hard evidence supporting Fisher’s death, law enforcement continues its search. FBI special agent Robert Caldwell says he believes Fisher is one of the nearly 200,000 U.S. fugitives living under a false name and that he is likely residing somewhere in the United States, Mexico or Canada.
“Some say he’s dead, but we don’t believe that he’s the type of guy who would kill himself,” Caldwell says. “He’s a very egocentric, very introverted person, so we really don’t believe he would do that.”
According to those who knew him best, on the surface, nothing about Robert Fisher made him seem like anything but a normal family man. An experienced outdoorsman, Fisher was an avid hunter and fisherman.
He had devoted himself to a career helping others, working as a respiratory therapist at the prestigious Mayo Clinic.
At home, Fisher was dedicated to his children.
“He loved his kids. He talked well about his family. He was well respected at his job,” says Adam Trahan, who worked with Fisher for several years at Scottsdale Healthcare’s Shea Hospital. Trahan describes Fisher as “just a normal guy.”
Robert Fisher grew up in Tucson. When he was 15, his parents divorced and his father, who worked at a bank, gained custody of Fisher and his two sisters.
After graduating from Sahuaro High School in 1979, he joined the Navy, serving as a Petty Officer on the San Diego-based USS Belleau Wood until 1982.
When he was discharged, Fisher became a firefighter in rural San Diego County.
Soon after, at a Baptist Church social group Fisher met a wholesome blonde named Mary Jean Cooper. Mary, born in Chicago, was deeply religious. She was very close to her family and considered becoming a mom one of her highest goals.
After marrying in 1987 the couple settled in south Scottsdale and purchased a home near Mary’s parents’ house in the 2200 block of North 74th Place for $80,000.
Their daughter, Brittney, was born a year later, followed by son, Bobby, in 1991. When the kids began attending school, Mary went back to work part time for a friend’s small medical company.
Mary was a loving and involved mom who frequently volunteered at the kids’ school.
“Mary loved those kids so much,” says Mary’s father, Bill Cooper. “Brittney and Bobby loved the Lord. Both kids were very spiritual.”
Brittney was very intelligent and studious, and despite a hectic school schedule, she remained active in sports, including basketball and soccer. Bobby, who was close to his big sister, enjoyed drawing and fishing with his father.
The Fisher family life revolved around church activities, camping, quad riding, hunting and fishing.
“They were a completely normal family,” says Mary’s friend Lori Greenbeck. “I can’t even say that Robert wasn’t normal. He wasn’t a bully, but he was the king of his castle. That was just their relationship.”
Even Bill Cooper remembers Robert as a dedicated father. “He’d come over for Thanksgiving and Christmas and whatnot, and you’d never know that anything was wrong,” he says.
Hunting for Fisher
According to officials, both local law enforcement and the FBI still receive almost daily calls and tips on reported sightings of Fisher.
Fox’s hit show “America’s Most Wanted” has featured segments on the case on 10 separate occasions, which has generated thousands of leads and tips.
Dozens of Robert Fisher look-a-likes have been reported, and Scottsdale police have even traveled as far as Canada in 2003 to fingerprint one Robert Fisher doppelganger.
“As time goes on, a fugitive’s ability to stay on the run gets better,” says Greg Howell, a producer for “America’s Most Wanted.” “The ones that are gone a long time are the ones who manage to get out of the country.”
Fisher was last seen captured in a surveillance photo on the night of the murders withdrawing $280 from the ATM machine at the Wells Fargo on Scottsdale and McDowell roads in Scottsdale. He was wearing an Oakland Raiders baseball cap and driving Mary’s silver 2000 Toyota 4-Runner. Police later found the baseball cap left inside the vehicle, though the other items missing from the home were never found, fueling speculation that Fisher likely fled the scene where the vehicle was found. A number of possibilities were suspected by police. One theorized that Fisher might have had an accomplice who transported him away from the site, though no physical evidence has ever supported that scenario. Another supposed that Fisher may have hitchhiked or obtained a ride that took him away from the scene.
“We know he didn’t walk away because the dog would have followed him,” Caldwell says. “There are a lot of different things that could have happened. But the dog stayed there, so obviously he was driven away.”
Despite many unanswered questions, law-enforcement officials remain certain that Fisher is still out there.
“He’s probably working some menial job where people won’t pay much attention to him and he can get paid under the table,” says Caldwell. “He may be that guy who’s right around the corner from you that you never knew because he has changed his look enough.”
Police say that beneath Fisher’s loving father facade was a cruel, controlling, violence-prone loner.
“There was definitely a Robert that absolutely nobody knew,” Greenbeck says. “She protected him. She didn’t want people to know what a jerk he was. She wanted everything to be as normal as possible for the kids.”
According to interviews with Mary’s friends, police say Fisher was very controlling of his wife and required her to ask his permission before participating in even the most routine of activities.
In the weeks leading up to the murders, police say Mary told several friends she had had enough and was going to divorce her husband. Based on their investigation, law-enforcement officials have concluded that due to events of his own childhood, divorce would never be an option for Fisher.
“He vowed that he would never get a divorce,” Caldwell says. “Robert had a big problem with divorce.”
Robert Fisher had a difficult time dealing with the divorce of his own parents, who parted ways when he was a teenager. Fisher had even refused to take his own children to Disneyland, the site of his parents’ last screaming fight.
By 2001, Robert and Mary’s 14-year marriage was in trouble. Fisher had had a one-night affair with a prostitute he had met at a massage parlor and had confided it to his pastor.
Though Mary never came out and actually told Greenbeck of the affair, Greenbeck says she thought something had happened. “I knew when he had cheated on her,” Greenbeck says. “She said there was some work Robert needed to do, but she said she was willing to work on it.”
According to friends, in early 2001 the couple appeared to be working things out. They were attending couples’ counseling at their church, and Robert had told a hunting buddy that he was renewing his commitment to his faith and his marriage.
However, at the time of the murders, it was believed that Mary had suspicions that Robert was having another affair.
“From my understanding she was getting ready to leave him again,” Caldwell says. “We’re theorizing that in his mind it was better off that the kids be dead rather than not be raised by him.”
It remains unknown whether it was the fear of divorce that was Robert’s real motive or perhaps something more sinister.
“It’s difficult to get inside his head,” says Greg Klein, creative producer for “America’s Most Wanted.” “Did he snap one day and kill his family? Or did he methodically plan the murders to go on to have a second life?”
Mary’s parents, Bill and Ginny Cooper, say they may never know what actually happened the night of April 9, 2001.
Mary kept Robert’s dark side a secret, especially from them.
“We never knew a thing,” Bill Cooper says. “She didn’t want mommy and daddy to know anything she was going through. She just took care of those two precious kids.”
In fact, at first the family had a difficult time fathoming that Robert could have been responsible. They say they liked him and thought he was a good husband and son-in-law.
“I remember my first interview at the fire, I pleaded for Bob: ‘Where are you Robert? Please come home.’ We thought it was a break-in. We didn’t know what happened,” Bill Cooper recalls. “Until they started putting things together, then we realized what was really happening.”
Today the Coopers say they are certain Fisher is still out there somewhere and believe he might have started a new family.
Still, instead of focusing on his whereabouts and the tragedy, Mary’s parents choose to remember the good times, including the last dinner they shared with their daughter and the kids just two days before the murders.
In the Coopers’ memories and on the walls of their Scottsdale home, Brittney and Bobby remain eternal children.
“Brittney, she was a super student. Some people might have called her a nerd until they found out she was a pretty good little jock too,” Bill Cooper says. “Bobby was just his own man; he was just a neat kid. He would have graduated this year. We just wonder what he would have been like.”
Robert William Fisher
DOB: April 13, 1961
Occupations: Surgical catheter technician, respiratory therapist, firefighter
Scars and marks: Fisher has surgical scars on his lower back.
Remarks: Fisher is physically fit and is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman. He has a noticeable gold crown on his upper left first bicuspid tooth. He may walk with an exaggerated erect posture and his chest pushed out due to a lower back injury. Fisher is known to chew tobacco heavily. He has ties to New Mexico and Florida. Fisher is believed to be in possession of several weapons, including a high-powered rifle.
Reward: The FBI is offering a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading directly to the arrest of Fisher.
What happened to Robert Fisher?
Friends, family and law enforcement speculate on Fisher’s whereabouts.
Adam Trahan, Robert’s former co-worker
“I think if he is alive, one of the possibilities is in Sierra Madre, Mexico. It’s known for its lawlessness. He could hide in this area, very easily.”
Robert Caldwell, FBI special agent
Either he is still in the United States or has snuck into Mexico or Canada. “I personally believe by now he’s hooked up with somebody. The way he is, the way he was such a control freak with Mary, I’m sure he’s found companionship. If he did find it, it’s probably with a woman who he’s extremely controlling of.”
Greg Howell, “America’s Most Wanted” producer
“This guy has kind of vanished. (The police) feel he could be somewhere in the U.S. or possibly parts of Canada.”
Bill and Ginny Cooper, Mary’s parents
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s still out there,” says Bill Cooper. Mary’s mother, Ginny Cooper, believes Robert has likely remarried.
Skylar Robinson, psychic detective
Fisher is living under a different identity in Calallen, Texas, where he travels in and out of Mexico. “He lives in a trailer. He’s gotten a little too comfortable in this town. He’s not trying too hard to stay hidden.”