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

Robert I. Cunningham, Jr. of Patagonia, has been released 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.

Cunningham had been arrested near the international border in Nogales on Nov. 7 in connection with the May 11, 2017 fire that destroyed Cunningham’s Ranch House Restaurant, the Sonoita family business he co-owned with his two sisters. 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) conducted the investigation leading to the arrest. A criminal complaint was filed Nov. 3 in the United States District Court of Arizona in Tucson outlining the ATF’s findings.

The complaint states that in 2017, Corona De Tucson Fire Department Fire Marshall Charlotte Herdliska “determined that the fire at the restaurant was incendiary…there were multiple areas that tested positive for accelerants, most notably two intact Budweiser beer bottles with wick-type items stuffed into the openings and corresponding burn patterns. Multiple points of origin for the fire were identified, including the front dining room, the rear dining room, the saloon, and the rear patio.” Lab testing by the ATF identified the liquid in the bottles to be gasoline. 

According to the complaint, Cunningham told investigators on May 22, 2017, that he had gone to sleep at his Patagonia residence between 7:00 and 7:30p.m. on the night of the fire. However, cell phone tower records placed his phone in Sonoita at 7:38p.m. A surveillance camera filmed a “dark colored SUV exiting the alleyway behind the restaurant and departing in the direction of Patagonia” at 8:32p.m. The appearance of the vehicle was “consistent with the SUV driven by Cunningham.” Flames were seen coming from the restaurant on the surveillance camera at 8:35p.m.

In an interview conducted with Cunningham on Sept. 20, 2017, “investigators confronted Cunningham with the historic cell site information that contradicts his claim. He responded, ‘I don’t buy it.’”

Nationwide Insurance paid the owners of the restaurant a total of $345,114 in 2017 because of the fire.

The ATF’s Nov. 3, 2022 complaint states that “On November 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.”

After his Nov. 7 arrest, Cunningham was held in detention on a federal criminal complaint of “Arson of a building or other real or personal property used in interstate commerce or in any activity affecting interstate commerce.” 

At his hearing in the Tucson U.S. District Court on Nov. 21, Cunningham was granted a conditional release from detention by Judge Leslie A. Bowman. He was released on his own recognizance to the third party custody of Robert James Cunningham. 

Under the conditions of his release, Cunningham is barred from having any contact with “FW” who resides in Patagonia, and he is not allowed to travel to Santa Cruz County, except for a one-time trip to pick up his vehicle. He is not permitted to travel to Pima County, except for court purposes, lawyer conferences and medical appointments. He had to surrender his passport, and was ordered to not travel outside the state of Arizona without prior permission from the court. 

Cunningham is prohibited from consuming alcohol and must participate in alcohol treatment, and is ordered to participate in a mental health treatment program. He “shall not engage in any gambling activities or enter any gambling establishments,” and has been ordered to participate in a location monitoring program.