Phoenix Couple Murdered While Camping, Case Remains Unsolved
A Phoenix couple went camping at Sunset Point in October 2003, just two miles off I-17 and Bumble Bee Road north of Phoenix, Arizona. Lisa Gurrieri, 19, and Brandon Rumbaugh, 20, were celebrating their first anniversary together, but their lives were cut short by a gun-wielding man who escaped without being seen.
Who Were They?
Lisa thought her life was perfect. Lisa worked at Salt River Project, sang in church, and was in love with Brandon Rumbaugh who was an Arizona State University student and worked as a fitness trainer in Mesa. The couple lived in Scottsdale.
Her uncle Mike help raise Lisa after her father died of cancer. “She always had a smile on her face,” said Mike Gurrieri. As a matter of fact, she sang at my wedding.”
Mike and Lisa were close after her father passed away.
“I always thought of Lisa as my own,” said Mike. Referring to Lisa's father, News 3 reporter, Brianna Whitney asked Mike, “He asked you to watch over Lisa?”
“Yeah,” said Mike with a tear in his eye.
Family members spoke of the two as the “perfect couple,” saying they were really great kids and perfect together.
Brandon was a fitness trainer in Mesa.
On October 18, 2003, Brandon and Lisa took an overnight trip to a campsite near Bumble Bee, Arizona, to lay out under the stars and celebrate their one-year anniversary. They planned to return home on Saturday morning.
Lisa knew her Uncle Mike would worry about her, so she asked her mom not to tell him.
“So, you didn’t know she had gone up there?” asked Whitney.
“No, and it’s crushed me ever since,” said Mike.
When Brandon did not show up for work the following day, both families became concerned and headed one hour north to Bumble Bee Road to search for the couple.
It was Sunday afternoon when three family friends located the white Ford F-150 pickup truck the couple had borrowed from Lisa’s mother.
Both were both found dead together in the bed of the pickup truck. The friends immediately went to Sunset Point rest stop, along I-17, to notify authorities.
The medical examiner would later determine that they were both shot multiple times in the head. With no witnesses, the perpetrator escaped into the 90,000 acres of national forest land.
Police collected evidence at the common campsite, including trash and a disposable camera.
The camera was used to take the last known photographs of the couple. Though the camera was damaged, detectives were able to develop several photographs.
The other photographs were of a compact fluorescent light in some kind of building. Police still don’t know where the other photographs were taken.
“The camera looked like it had been thrown away from the truck,” said Yavapai County Sheriff Lt. Frank Barbaro. “It was found by some rocks.”
When asked if he thought the camera could have been thrown away by the killer, Barbaro answered, “Well, that’s a good possibility.”
Detectives know Lisa and Brandon also had a video camera with them that night. “We never located that thing,” said Barbaro. We found the camera case, but we never found the video camera. We know everything about it, even the serial number.”
The detective was asked if he thought the killer had taken the video camera with them and he responded, “Absolutely.”
A rare weapon was also used in the murders. It was a .25 caliber handgun.
Detectives needed to know why the two had been targeted. “Normally, people are killed by somebody they know,” Barbaro said.
That is where the police started.
They started with the three people that found the bodies in the truck. They were people that Lisa and Brandon knew. Each was questioned.
“If they are not involved, they are involved as far as they know something," said Mike. He went to question one of them soon after the murders and believes one of the men had a motive.
“He wanted Lisa. He wanted Lisa bad, to be with her,” Mike said. “I was on my way. I was in my truck headed to the freeway. I got a phone call saying he wasn’t there. The place was wiped clean.”
Mike says the sheriff’s office botched the investigation from the beginning.
The man had been a person of interest and interviewed by the detectives. “He moved to Washington, I think, and they went and did a polygraph and cleared him,” said Barbaro. “But I wouldn’t clear somebody just off a polygraph.”
Barbaro admits the investigation has not gone perfectly, beginning with processing the truck.
“I wouldn’t have processed it at night. Probably would have waited until the morning to process it,” Barbaro said. “There’s always stuff you could’ve done better.”
A possible connection to another case has been bothering the sheriff’s office for years.
“I like to read. I like to research,” said Deborah West, a cold case volunteer with the sheriff’s office. “The more time I spend with it, the more I’m not willing to give up.”
West doesn’t believe Lisa and Brandon knew their killers.
“I’m leading more toward a random,” West said. “The purpose was to break into the truck, steal the truck, and were surprised by the people in the back,” she said.
The sheriff’s office has also been investigating a behind the scenes theory that Lisa and Brandon’s murder may be connected to another set of murders that occurred just six months after Lisa and Brandon’s murder.
Two men had been camping in Crown King, a small unincorporated community in the Bradshaw Mountains north of Phoenix. The former gold mining town, with one saloon, is located 26 miles off I-17 on a rough dirt road with switchbacks, that one needs a 4X4 to access.
In March 2004, Omer Lee Casey and William Ray Middaugh of Yuma were found murdered in a national forest campground by U.S. Forest Service workers, near Crown King, just minutes off of Bumble Bee Road. Their truck had been stolen.
Casey was an owner of the Casey & Sons Harvesting Company and Middaugh was retired from Arizona Public Service after working at the Yucca plant for more than 30 years. The longtime friends often went camping and loved target shooting competitions.
The suspect in the double murders of Casey and Middaugh was Rusty Rankin, 21, of Phoenix. Police attempted to coax Rankin out of a Colorado hotel room for three hours, but Rankin committed suicide. Lt. Steve Francis of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office said there did not seem to be a motive in the killings. Barbaro disagrees.
“Six months later, we have the same type of crime. Two people shot for their vehicle to be stolen. It’s very unusual. It never happens here,” said Barbaro. “We don’t have physical proof of it yet, but it really surprises me that these would be completed unrelated.
West said the focus now remains on continuing to test items from the crime scene for DNA.
“Brandon’s pants, the jeans that were there. It’s very possible the perpetrator looked through the pants,” West told News 3.
Meanwhile, Barbaro continues to question people, even if they have been questioned and cleared before.
“It always comes back to somebody,” Barbaro said.
When asked if he thinks this case will be solved, Barbaro answered, “Yes.”
After 17 years, Lisa and Brandon’s family hopes he is right.
Family Asks Public for Help
“She was beautiful inside and out,” said Lisa’s mother, Paula Gurrieri. “She would walk into a room; she always had a smile on her face.”
Paula reflects back on the night her daughter never came home. “She said, ‘Because we’re going camping,’ and I said, ‘You’ve never camped before. What do you mean you’re going camping?’ She says, “We just want to go out and sleep under the stars tonight,’”
Lisa had told her mother that she would be home early that morning and when they did not arrive Paula knew in her heart—something was wrong.
“It was about 9 o’clock. I looked down at my watch and I started crying. My son said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said ‘Something’s wrong. She’s not home yet. She told me she was going to be home early because Brandon had to work and she’s not home,’” said Paula.
Immediately, Paula began calling every number she could find for help. “I called the rangers. I called everybody, just trying to get them to help, I couldn’t get any help at all,” she said.
Now, Paula and her brother Mike, are pleading with someone to come forward with information that will provide answers and some sort of closure.
“There’s somebody out there who knows something whatever it is. We just need that person to come forward,” said Mike.
“It's a pretty horrible thing,” said Mike. “My father had a saying, ‘It is what it is.’ But I don’t think that goes for murder.”
A $10,000 reward if offered. If you have any information about the murders of Brandon Rumbaugh and Lisa Gurrieri, please call Yavapai County Silent Witness at 1-800-932-3232.
© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini