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 Jana Bommersbach, John Dougherty, Tom Fitzpatrick and Paul Rubin. 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.
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. In addition to the missing file, index cards for the files were also removed from the records room. Did it contain inconvenient information about Adamson, Emprise and Kemper Marley? Or more? Self-serving narratives, hidden agendas, and bad memories further blur the trail. 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 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. In a jailhouse interview with Bommersbach and Rubin, Adamson said chillingly, "I didn't kill him for a story he'd written. I killed him for a story he was going to write."