Cunningham’s Ranch House restaurant pictured after the fire that took place May 11, 2017. Investigators concluded the fire was caused by an act of arson. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

A criminal complaint filed last November by federal prosecutors against Robert Cunningham, 74, of Patagonia, has been dismissed without prejudice. Cunningham had been arrested in connection with the May 2017 fire that destroyed Cunningham’s Ranch House Restaurant, the Sonoita family business he co-owned with his two sisters. 

In documents filed in the United States District Court in Tucson on Feb. 1, prosecutors told presiding Judge Leslie A. Bowman that “due to recent developments in this case, the government must conduct further investigation. Accordingly, dismissal without prejudice would be in the interests of justice.” The judge granted the motion.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) conducted the investigation leading to Cunningham’s arrest last November. The ATF’s Nov. 3, 2022 criminal complaint against Cunningham stated that, “On Nov. 1, 2022, investigators interviewed a source with firsthand information about Cunningham and his whereabouts on the night of the fire….The source stated that Cunningham had admitted to him/her on May 11, 2017 (i.e. the night of the fire) that he had started the fire at the restaurant.” The source admitted to lying to investigators in a prior interview, stating that Cunningham had asked him/her to lie, and that “he/she did so because he/she was concerned about how an arrest of Cunningham would affect his/her personal association with him.”

Cunningham was arrested on Nov. 7, 2022, and then released from detention on his own recognizance after a hearing held in U.S. District Court on Nov. 21. Also on that date, Judge Lynnette C. Kimmins ordered a 60-day extension on the deadline to indict, after an unopposed motion by the defendants. The parties argued that they needed the time to explore the possibility of a pre-indictment plea offer. (The case was subsequently transferred from Judge Kimmins to Judge Bowman.)

Judge Bowman’s Feb. 1 decision to dismiss the criminal complaint came after court documents were filed on Jan. 26 by Cunningham’s attorneys requesting that Cunningham be allowed to travel to his home in Patagonia to attend to personal matters. The Jan. 26 court documents revealed that Patagonia resident “F.W.,” whom Cunningham had been barred from contacting as a condition of his release, had recently died. The PRT has been able to confirm that “F.W.” died on Jan. 23. According to Cunningham’s attorneys, “F.W.” had been living at Cunningham’s residence. 

Cunningham had previously been barred from traveling to Santa Cruz County, other than a single visit to retrieve a vehicle, under terms of his conditional release from detention on Nov. 21, 2022.