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40 years later: Who murdered reporter Don Bolles?

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Rogue Columnist

40 years later: Who murdered reporter Don Bolles?

They still meet at the scene of the crime. The breakfasts at the Hotel Clarendon are informal reunions of the lead investigators of the murder ofArizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. The hotel itself, redone in the 2000s, has created a shrine of sorts to Bolles, photographs of the event along a hallway. No longer young men, they still have sharp, vivid memories. If one is fortunate enough to snag an invitation, bringing a reporter's notebook is impossible. It would shut down the conversation.

As difficult as it is for some of us to believe, June 2 marks 40 years since the bombing. It remains the most enduring mystery and troubling crime in modern Phoenix history.

I have two minor personal connections. I was on duty that day on the ambulance and, as it turned out, one call rotation away from being there. My partner and I caught an auto accident with injuries, or 962 by the radio codes, at 16th Street and Southern. Next up was an explosion in Midtown. One of my friends took that call and was holding the mortally injured Bolles when he said, "They finally got me... Mafia, Emprise, Adamson... Find Adamson..." That's what she told me later in the squad room. (The excellent Paul Rubin of New Times has slightly different wording in this recollection of the event).

Read more: The murder of Don Bolles: A players guide

Also, in those days I was living in an apartment at 36th Street and Campbell, one of those classic Phoenix buildings surrounded by citrus trees with a grassy, shady courtyard. My neighbor was a young man named John. I noticed that whenever he came home at night, he would repeatedly circle the block. Over time, he told my mother that he and his mother had been relocated to Phoenix by the FBI after his father had died in a mob bombing in Chicago. The Bolles killing unnerved him. "He had been warned," he said. "They always warn you." Followed by, "I've said too much." He was even more reluctant to come home at night.

Indeed, it was a paranoid time in Phoenix. Other mob murders had recently happened, including a 1975 car bomb in Tempe that killed Joseph Nardi, an APS warehouse worker — but in reality a bookie named Louis Bombacino who informed on the Chicago mob.

The basics of the case are not in dispute.

Age 47, Bolles was a reporter of the old school. He did not rewrite press releases or produce stories that had "just" in the headline. Whether or not he "loved" or "despised" Arizona was irrelevant to his job, for journalists see the world differently from mere civilians. Bolles had amassed an impressive record as an investigative reporter, focused on land fraud and the Mafia's influence in horse and dog racing, the latter being wildly popular in those days. But when he was murdered, he had been moved over to cover the state Legislature.

On June 2, 1976, Bolles went to the Clarendon to meet a potential source, John Harvey Adamson. The man claimed he had information on, as Rubin put it, "a fraudulent land deal linked to heavy-duty politicos and the 'Mob.' " After waiting in the lobby with no success, Bolles walked back to his car and got in. Six sticks of dynamite exploded beneath the driver's seat. Taken to St. Joes and undergoing multiple amputations, Bolles died 11 days later.

He remains one of the very few journalists to be assassinated on American soil. There used to be a code, where the Mafia didn't murder cops or reporters. That had changed by the time I was an investigative reporter in southeast Texas in the mid-1980s, where drug dealers put a contract on me and my team. We were armed at all times and had an elaborate protocol with the Texas Rangers so they could rescue us if we were arrested by one of many bought-off police departments (or even DEA units).

The inexplicable breaking of this code set up one of the many mysteries of Bolles' death.

Adamson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1977 and most likely planted the explosive under Bolles' car. In New Times, Tom Fitzpatrick described him as "a small-time enforcer" and part of the Midtown bar scene. Midtown was the liveliest part of the city then and was full of bars frequented by made men and wanna-bes in Phoenix's extensive underworld. Adamson accused two others of being part of the plot, contractor Max Dunlap and plumber James Robison. It took years to secure convictions of the pair. Dunlap did work for, and was probably a friend of, Kemper Marley.

Here, the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and questions of enormous import — ones that linger today — begins.

Marley, who died in 1990, was one of the richest and most powerful men in Arizona. Today you'll find his name all over thanks to the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation. Marley's wealth came from land and cattle, like men such as Dwight Heard. Unlike Heard, Marley was also Phoenix's most powerful liquor distributor, a business with links going back to Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Gus Greenbaum.

His dark reputation went way back. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Teamsters tried to organize workers in the 1930s, Marley pronounced it a "communist" danger. Working with local law enforcement, Marley's thugs broke strikes and intimidated union organizers.

Adamson claimed that Marley had ordered the hit on Bolles, who had done several investigative pieces on the liquor baron, including one that had forced him to resign from a coveted seat on the state Racing Commission. Yet Marley was never charged. And in many ways, the scheme didn't make sense. In old Phoenix, Marley would have been more likely to pick up the phone and complain to publisher Eugene C. Pulliam.

But Pulliam — who encouraged Bolles' investigative work — had died two years before. Phoenix was changing fast. Was Marley innocent? The line between legitimate business and gangsters was very porous in old Phoenix. Men such as Barry Goldwater and Del Webb enjoyed running with the fast crowd that included mobsters. Or did Marley do a sly version of "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

Emprise, along with the Funk family, was the company that owned the horse and dog tracks, as well as providing concessions to the Phoenix Suns. Bolles was also said to be investigating Emprise, which had been probed by a U.S. House committee for organized crime connections and had been convicted of concealing its ownership stake of a Las Vegas casino. Brad Funk, who hung out in the same bars as Adamson, had a personal antipathy for Bolles. Again, no connection was ever established that could stand up in court.

Finding the truth was complicated on two fronts.

First, the professional organization Investigative Reporters and Editors mobilized top reporters from around the country, under the leadership of the legendary Bob Greene of Newsday, to camp out in Phoenix and discover who killed Bolles. The enormous "Arizona Project" that resulted unmasked our sunny paradise, detailing crime, corruption, exploitation of migrants and their links with some of the most prominent citizens. It ran in newspapers around the country, including in New Times. It still makes great reading today. But it didn't settle the most important question.

The Republic and Phoenix Gazette did not run the series. Make of that what you wish. But bear in mind that such top reporters as Al Sitter and Don Dedera wrote many probing articles about the case. (The Scottsdale Progress' Don Devereaux, who was part of the IRE team, has continued to write about the Bolles murder.)

Second, the police investigation was sloppy and highly compromised. Some detectives in the Phoenix Police Organized Crime Bureau (OCB) were among the best in the country. Others assigned there were lazy, careless, perhaps even penetrated by the mob. As usual, agencies didn't always cooperate well.

County Attorney Mo Berger may have compromised himself with land-fraud kingpin Ned Warren, an Adamson associate (and yet another suspect). Legendary OCB Detective Lonzo McCracken, with the approval of his boss Sgt. Oscar Long, went to see Harry Rosenzweig and played a tape recording between himself and Berger to this effect. Rosenzweig was one of the last of the titans that once "ran" Phoenix (and was rumored to be mobbed up himself, but see my "fast crowd" comment above). Rosenzweig acted.

Berger was replaced by an interim County Attorney, Don Harris. To Harris' consternation, Bruce Babbitt, the young Attorney General (who was on Adamson's hit list), soon took over the investigation. But questions remain about the integrity of the files and other evidence. Apparently lost were the so-called 851 files, which involved Adamson and Emprise.

As a result, many stories circulated, some urban legends, others...

For example, it has been said that Bolles' files and notebooks disappeared from the newsroom immediately after his murder. A reporter who was there assures me this is not true.

Then there is the case of the "elevator ride." A detective had an informant who got on an elevator at the state capitol and observed Gov. Raul Castro and Kemper Marley engrossed in a conversation about Don Bolles. Marley was a large contributor to Castro. But the story has some holes. It is not clear whether the conversation happened before or after the murder. And the detective refused to produce the informant.

So 40 years later, the question remains: Who murdered Don Bolles?

The retired men around the breakfast table, whether they be PPD, MCSO or feds, agree that justice was not fully served and the case remains open.

I will investigate further and I hope all Arizona press join me.

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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