Shooting of dog-walker called justified
Payson-area trail death deemed self-defense
The Arizona Republic
May. 22, 2004 12:00 AM
It was a common Arizona hiking confrontation: big, unleashed dogs on a trail, turning a peaceful walk in the woods into a frightening ordeal of snarling teeth and vicious barking.
Usually it is settled with words, sometimes angry. This time it turned deadly.
Coconino County sheriff's detectives say the shooting of 43-year-old Grant Kuenzli was a justifiable homicide. But the victim's friends say he was a peaceful man who had volunteered to take a couple of dogs from an animal shelter out for exercise and didn't deserve to die.
The encounter occurred 11 days ago near Payson, when Kuenzli was hiking through the woods on the Pine Canyon Trail with his dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Maggie, and two other dogs, a chow and a German shepherd mix.
The dogs, which were not on leashes, ran ahead and apparently startled Harold Fish, a 57-year-old retiree from Phoenix, according to sheriff's Detective Scott Feagan.
Fish, who was carrying a 10mm semiautomatic pistol in a holster, felt threatened, Feagan said, and fired a warning shot into the ground near the dogs and then three shots at Kuenzli, all of which hit him in the chest.
"Our investigation leads us to believe this is a situation of self-defense," Feagan said. "(Fish) was under attack."
Fish could not be reached for comment. There were no other witnesses.
Payson retiree John McCauley, 73, who befriended Kuenzli at Payson's dog park, described him as "a very gentle person" who loved dogs and the outdoors.
McCauley and others in Payson who knew Kuenzli said it does not add up that he and his dogs would have been a threat to another hiker.
Feagan related Fish's account of the shooting:
Kuenzli's barking dogs charged at Fish, who yelled at Kuenzli to call them off. Fish fired a warning shot when the lead dog, the chow, was within 6 feet of him.
Fish looked up and saw Kuenzli running down the hill, fists clenched, and yelling at him. He warned him to stop. Kuenzli charged forward. Fish shot him three times.
Fish then hiked out and flagged down a passer-by to alert the Sheriff's Department. Kuenzli was dead when the paramedics arrive.
Fish had no wounds from the dogs.
Both Kuenzli and Fish were each about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed close to 200 pounds.
Feagan said the chow that charged Fish has a documented history of aggression.
That is disputed by Larry Stubbs, Payson Humane Society president.
Kuenzli, who volunteered at the Payson shelter, had taken the chow and shepherd out for a hike with Maggie, a therapy dog that he took to senior centers.
Stubbs, a retired Phoenix police officer, said the shelter would have euthanized either dog if it was vicious.
He said the Sheriff's Department had not contacted him.
McCauley said he believes that Kuenzli probably yelled at Fish not to kill his dogs.
"I don't think the guy who shot him was doing anything malicious," McCauley said.
"I just think he overreacted."
William Boa, a Mesa police volunteer for 14 years and a gun instructor, said a dog could be considered a lethal weapon.
"The question is: Are you in fear of your life and did you take a reasonable action?" said Boa, who teaches a concealed-weapons permit course.
Fish had a permit but was carrying his pistol openly, which is legal in Arizona.
A warning shot might indicate that Fish had time to flee, Boa said.
"Personally, I would have shot the dog first," he said.
Although detectives say the shooting appears to have been justified, they do intend to present the case to a Coconino County grand jury.
It will be several weeks before any results are known.
McCauley said he is concerned that Kuenzli will be portrayed to a grand jury as homeless and a "loose cannon."
Kuenzli was living in the woods near Payson, but he showered and shaved every day and was well-adjusted, McCauley said.
He worked as a fire inspector for the Gilbert Fire Department from July 1998 to April 1999.
Kuenzli also had a Web site listing himself as a pet photographer and appeared on an Internet listing of Arizonans for Howard Dean.
"He had plenty of money, a bank account and a $1,000 check on him when he was killed," McCauley said.
Stubbs, of the Payson Humane Society, said people in Payson are wondering how the shooting could have happened.
"He was such mild-mannered guy, they can't understand it," Stubbs said.
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