The defendant in one of Rim Country’s most notorious murder cases died this week, bringing to an end a strange and twisted odyssey that once transfixed Roundup readers.
Harold Fish, a retired Tolleson High School teacher, was convicted by a Flagstaff jury of killing a Payson man. But after three years in prison, a judge overturned his conviction and set him free.
Fish died of cancer on Sept. 8 at 65 years of age.
In May, 2004, Fish shot to death 43-year-old Grant Kuenzli at a popular Coconino National Forest trailhead just north of Strawberry.
Fish, an avid hiker and outdoorsman, told police he acted in self-defense after Kuenzli and his dogs attacked him as he was finishing a hike.
During Fish’s trial, Coconino County Chief Deputy Attorney Mike Lessler contended Fish had other options and did not need to shoot Kuenzli, a vagabond and part-time Payson resident who lived in the woods and often cared for dogs from the local humane society by taking them on overnight camping trips into the national forest.
In June 2006, following a contentious trial in which Fish was represented by high-powered Phoenix attorney Mel McDonald, the jury convicted Fish of second degree murder and a judge sentenced him to 10 years in jail.
Fish had served three years of the sentence in the Arizona State Prison Complex- Lewis near Buckeye, when Coconino County Superior Court Judge Mark Moran, also the trial judge in the murder case, signed an order releasing him.
Just one month earlier, an appeals court had overturned Fish’s conviction saying Moran erred, partly due to flawed jury instructions.
The court also said Moran should have allowed the defense to offer evidence about Kuenzli’s alleged aggressive behavior when the dogs confronted the hiker.
About the same time the state released Fish, Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1419 into law, shifting the burden of proof in cases of self-defense to the prosecution.
In Fish’s case, the defense had to prove that Fish shot Kuenzli to protect himself.
Fish’s case led gun-rights advocates, including the National Rife Association, to spearhead a movement to change the state’s self-defense law.
The controversial trailside shooting drew nationwide attention in the fall of 2006 when “Dateline NBC” televised an hour-long segment that centered on the incident.
Just prior to the program’s airing, “Dateline” attempted to obtain from the Payson Roundup Kuenzli’s medical and mental health records, which the newspaper had obtained from the Coconino sheriff’s office just days after the shooting. The Roundup never released the records.
Those records showed that Kuenzli was on medications for depression, panic and anxiety disorders. When Kuenzli was asked on a behavioral health services enrollment application, “Have you ever tried to hurt yourself or others in the past,” he answered, “Last year, suicide attempt.”
Fish was released from jail on July 21, 2009 and greeted by hugs from his wife and six of their seven children.
At the time, he told the Roundup his biggest challenge was going to be adjusting to a normal life and he was looking forward to resuming his passion for hiking.
True to his word, only last summer, Fish completed a hike out of the Grand Canyon.
In Payson, the shooting generated probably the most letters to the editor ever received by the Roundup on a single issue.
Galvanized townspeople took sides — some saying Kuenzli was a quiet, dog-loving loner not prone to violence. Others argued that Fish was a kindly, spiritual, family man justified in using his weapon to defend himself from the Payson man and his dogs.
The shooting also generated debate around the country about the safety of hiking alone in the woods, the use of handguns in self-defense and unleashed dogs in national forests.