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The murder of Don Bolles: A players guide

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Rogue Columnist

The murder of Don Bolles: A players guide

"They finally got me...Mafia, Emprise, Adamson...find John Adamson..." — Don Bolles

On June 2, 1976, a bomb detonated under the car of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles in Midtown Phoenix. He survived an agonizing 11 days before he died. A recent article by Bolles' colleague John Winters lays out the basics. I've written about the case before here, as well as the Phoenix underworld. The closest assassins went to prison. Yet full justice was never served. The real puppetmasters got away with it. Many in high positions wanted it to go away.

But what exactly was it? The case has been extensively covered over the years, from the Arizona Project of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and contemporary, dogged reporting, by Republic and Phoenix Gazette reporters, including Al Sitter, Paul Dean, and Charles Kelly. New Times ran the IRE series and kept digging over the following decades, especially with John Dougherty and Tom Fitzpatrick. The Republic continues with retrospectives. Don Devereux, who worked for the Scottsdale Progress, still writes a blog about the case. A fascinating new book by Dave Wagner, an R&G city editor, The Politics of Murder: Organized Crime in Barry Goldwater's Arizona, makes an important contribution.

Read more: 40 years later: Who murdered reporter Don Bolles?

With so much having been written, so many characters and theories, one danger is becoming lost in a house of mirrors. The Bolles case would be the ultimate test of a mystery writer, were he foolish enough to try to make it into popular crime fiction. That's because in real life, the case was complex and shaded. It involved journalism and supposition, not all of the latter ultimately true. Carl Bernstein said that good journalism is the best available truth at that moment. But journalists write on history's leading edge and history is an argument without end. Law enforcement continues to debate the case, too. Files were lost or misplaced, perhaps deliberately. Among them, Phoenix Police file No. 851. Did it contain inconvenient information about Adamson and Emprise? Or more? Many questions remain.

So my modest attempt for the 40th anniversary of the bombing is a list of the actual major players and their connection with the most notorious assassination of a reporter on American soil:

John Adamson: Don Bolles left his post covering the state Legislature to meet Adamson at the Clarendon House Hotel on June 2nd. Adamson promised a juicy tip on a land fraud involving Barry Goldwater, Harry Rosenzweig, Sam Steiger, and Kemper Marley. In reality, while Bolles waited for him in the lobby, Adamson planted the dynamite device under the driver's side of Bolles' new Datsun 710. After giving up on the meeting, Bolles returned to the parking lot, started his car, and pulled out when the bomb went off.

Usually portrayed as a small-time but menacing hood, Adamson hung out on the Central Avenue bars and the dog track. But he actually had worked his way up to being chief enforcer for land-fraud kingpin Ned Warren and, perhaps, had been retained by associates of Barry Goldwater for dirty business in a Navajo power struggle. He also worked as a confidential informant for someone in the Phoenix Police. Bolles identified Adamson in his famous last words. In exchange for cooperation, Adamson was given a 20-year sentence. When convictions from his testimony were thrown out, prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder. This conviction didn't stick. So after serving 20 years, Adamson entered federal witness protection, then voluntarily left it, dying in 2002. Some retired cops and journalists suspect that Adamson protected the true source of the death warrant on Bolles.

Bruce Babbitt: The future Arizona governor was serving as state Attorney General when Bolles was killed. He ultimately took over the case from the County Attorney. Babbitt, from Flagstaff, was one of the few scions of pioneer families involved in the case with no ties to or coziness with organized crime. But even with his able chief investigator George Weisz, Babbitt's office failed to reach the top of the "food chain" that ordered the hit. Babbitt's handling of the case was also controversial with some in law enforcement, including accepting Adamson's confession and plea deal. These cops didn't believe Adamson had been completely truthful. Acting County Attorney Don Harris felt sandbagged when Babbitt took the case.

Moise "Mo" Berger: The Maricopa County Attorney from 1969 to 1976, Berger initially led the prosecution in the Bolles murder. Berger was forced to back off prosecution of Ned Warren, reputedly on the direct orders of Harry Rosenzweig. The jeweler and civic leader had compromising photos of Berger taken at a Mesa brothel. In a meeting with Phoenix PD Detective Lonzo McCracken, Berger admitted it, saying, according to Wagner, "See, I know these bastards are out to get me." McCracken taped their conversation and parts of the resulting police report made it into the Republic on Aug. 4, 1976. Berger resigned the next day.

Raul Castro: Kemper Marley and his family made a $25,000 donation to Castro in the 1974 governor's race, the largest single contribution to the campaign in these pre-Citizens United days. Gov. Castro appointed Marley to the state Racing Commission, but Bolles' reporting forced Marley to resign. Historian Jack August has said that the scandal took an emotional toll on Castro. He resigned as governor in 1977 to accept appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Argentina. Castro had been a Superior Court judge in Tucson before becoming governor.

Mickey Clifton: The lawyer, who had previously represented Adamson on unrelated cases, was the first to alert Phoenix detectives to Adamson's full involvement in the bombing, corroborating Bolles' last words, and ensuring his arrest. Adamson met Clifton at a Central Avenue bar soon after the crime and confessed to it. This was at a time when the FBI was seeking to take control of the case. Clifton supplied other critical details about a wider conspiracy. He was ultimately disbarred and ruined. But one detective told me, "I believe he deserved better than to be exposed then and again now, for being a bad guy, when actually...he should be portrayed as a hero that knowingly risked his life and professional career to help clear up this murder conspiracy."

Max Dunlap: One of two co-conspirators named by Adamson (along with James Robison), Dunlap was a contractor and an old friend of Adamson's from North High School. Adamson claimed that Dunlap hired him to kill Bolles because Kemper Marley wanted revenge for the humiliation of being forced off the Racing Commission. Dunlap had received help in starting his construction business from Marley, assistance that had made him successful and prominent in Phoenix. He was a friend of Marley. Although he was sentenced to death in 1978, the conviction was overturned two years later. He was finally convicted in 1990 and died in prison in 2009. Dunlap always maintained his innocence, saying he had been framed.

Brad Funk: His family was the local partner of Emprise, the sports conglomerate, in running Arizona dog tracks. Before Bolles lost consciousness, he said to first responders (and versions vary in the wording), "They finally got me. Mafia, Emprise, Adamson..." Bolles had reported on the connections between dog racing and corruption. Devereux argues that Brad Funk had a personal grudge against Bolles. But Adamson owned greyhounds and frequented the track, perhaps providing protection to the families and becoming close to Brad. Neither Funk nor Emprise were ever charged.

Ed Lazar: An accountant for Ned Warren and president of Warren's Consolidated Mortgage Corp., Lazar was preparing to testify about the land frauds. Warren ordered his killing. Two hit men from Chicago shot Lazar to death in the stairwell of a Phoenix parking garage in 1975, a day before he was to appear before a grand jury. They tossed coins on his body — a gangland warning against anyone who wanted to "drop a dime" on mob activities. His son Zachary wrote a memoir seeking to understand how his respectable, suburban father became entwined with organized crime. One of the hit men, a member of the Chicago Heights crew of the Outfit, later confessed. He said the hit was ordered by Warren through Adamson and Carl Verive.

Kemper Marley: At the time one of the richest men in Arizona, Marley came from a pioneer Arizona family. He made his fortune with land and owning the state's largest liquor distributorship. In the 1930s, he had led the Associated Farmers of Arizona. Its bands of tough guys beat union officials trying to organize farm workers and improve their dismal conditions. In the 1940s, he tried to take over wire gambling in Phoenix when the mob summoned Gus Greenbaum to Las Vegas. Marley was also reputed to own a brothel in downtown Phoenix (his lawyer was a young William Rehnquist). Bolles' reporting on Marley cost him a coveted position on the state Racing Commission. Marley was never charged. An enduring question is whether Marley ordered a hit — the "frontier justice" theory — or say in essence, "who will rid me of this troublesome priest" and henchmen took things too far? Or was he involved at all?

Lonzo McCracken: One of the incorruptible detectives in the Phoenix Police Department, McCracken worked doggedly to put Ned Warren behind bars. A friend and good source of Bolles, he was assigned to the Intelligence Division, or I-Squad. McCracken brought solid cases to Mo Berger's office only to see them slog along and die, with no indictment of Warren. Indeed, Berger asked the court to dismiss charges. Lawyer Clifton contacted McCracken after meeting Adamson. McCracken turned the information over to the Homicide Division. Earlier, after an important Warren-connected case had collapsed under political and mob intimidation, McCracken gave a memorable valedictory that resonates through the years: "A sorry goddamned mess, this town."

Neal Roberts: This is one of the most fascinating, complex, and enigmatic characters. Also an alumni of North High, Roberts was a lawyer, fixer, and habitue of the Central Avenue bar scene. He was connected to all the main figures in the Bolles plot and some (including Max Dunlap) believe he was the mastermind. Adamson had been in Roberts' office on the morning of June 2, and the lawyer arranged for Adamson to be flown to Lake Havasu City later that day. Babbitt controversially gave Roberts immunity. He died in 1999.

James Robison: "Jimmy the Plumber," a friend of Adamson's, hit the switch that detonated the bomb under Bolles' car. Based heavily on Adamson's testimony, he was found guilty of first-degree murder, as well as involvement in a conspiracy to murder Babbitt and another man, a former employee of Marley. But the conviction was overturned in 1980. It was dismissed when Adamson refused to testify against Robison again. He was recharged twice, unsuccessfully. He finally served five years on federal charges of trying to have Adamson murdered. Robison was released in 1989.

Harry Rosenzweig: Another member of a prominent pioneer family, Rosenzweig was one of Phoenix's most powerful leaders for decades. He and Barry Goldwater successfully ran as reform candidates on the Charter Government Committee slate in 1948. Both were lifelong friends, builders of the ascendant Republican Party in Arizona, and merchant princes (Rosenzweig, along with his brother Newton, owned a downtown jewelry store). After his term was over, Rosenzweig continued to exercise enormous behind-the-scenes power. The brothers developed the original family homestead at Central and Clarendon into Rosenzweig Center, a prestigious set of skyscrapers. But both the Arizona Project reporting and Wagner's new book show a less savory side to Rosenzweig, including ties to land fraud, organized crime, and protecting favored lowlifes such as Ned Warren.

Ned Warren: Born Nathan Waxman, Warren arrived in Phoenix in the 1960s and over the next two decades became the "King of Arizona Land Fraud." He set up shell companies selling fraudulent land, often through front men. He'd pull out the profits and send the company into bankruptcy, leaving the front man and hapless buyers with nothing. Tens of thousands of customers were cheated of millions. Warren bribed the state Real Estate Commissioner. He also insinuated himself to Harry Rosenzweig and was able to get letters promoting one of his frauds from Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. Sam Steiger. The Phoenix elite helped protect Warren from prosecution, even after a blockbuster series on him by Don Bolles. Some witnesses against Warren died under suspicious circumstances. His chief enforcer in the mid-1970s was Adamson. Warren was ultimately convicted on federal charges of land fraud and extortion and died in 1979.

Howard Woodall: "Of the many con men who orbited Warren, none was more effective or ruthless than Woodall," write Wagner in his new book. He became president of the massive Del Rio Springs land fraud near Prescott, the scam that caused embarrassment for Goldwater when his promotional letter was revealed — and anger when Al Sitter wrote about it in the Republic. The letter was aimed at armed forces personnel in Asia, recommending worthless land with no utilities and no title. But Woodall was also tight with the Chicago Outfit. He testified that Robison admitted to pressing the detonator button repeatedly until the bomb under Bolles' car went off. Also, that Robison had put a contract on Adamson's life so he could beat the rap. In reality, he entrapped the plumber — the feds had arranged to put Woodall in the Maricopa County jail, where Robison was awaiting trial. Woodall, in a federal penitentiary, had been pressing the FBI for months to let him tell about mob activities and help gain intel, including on the Bolles hit, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Yet the jury accepted the testimony of this notorious con man. Woodall served a few years in federal prison for fraud and went into witness protection.

This column first appeared on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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