Filmmakers are planning a movie about the murder of Arizona journalist Don Bolles, But which story will they tell?
I’ll never forget June 2, 1976, and neither will Arizona.
I was a young reporter at The Arizona Republic that day, thinking it was an ordinary Wednesday. I was sitting at the City Desk when the call came in that a car with a reporter’s parking pass had just blown up outside the Clarendon Hotel.
It was just past noon, and everyone’s life changed in an instant. Republic City Editor Robert Early – a man we saw as our rock – was as close to panicked as I’d ever seen him. We didn’t know whose car it was; we had no idea what was happening. Early immediately feared the victim was Al Sitter, the Republic’s legendary investigative reporter, but then Al walked into the newsroom from lunch. That just heightened the confusion.
It took a while to realize the car belonged to Don Bolles, the other reporter well known for his investigations of the Mafia’s tentacles into Arizona. Bolles had said he was tired of investigative work, and now he was covering the State Legislature.
“What was Don working on?!” Early screamed, as folks at the Capitol rushed to Bolles’ desk to search for clues. They found a notation on his day planner: “Adamson, Clarendon, 11:30.”
Reporters rushed to the scene, and the news that came back seemed unbelievable. Bolles was mortally wounded by a car bomb attached to the undercarriage of his new Datsun sedan, directly beneath his driver’s seat. As he lay in a pool of blood, he told the strangers who had rushed to the scene who he thought had done this to him: “Adamson, Emprise, Mafia,” he muttered again and again.
Nobody knew at that moment who Adamson was, but the other two names had long been Bolles’ investigative targets: Emprise was the out-of-state company with questionable organized crime ties that owned the concessions at Arizona’s dog tracks, and the Mafia, of course, was the infamous collection of organized crime families that had found Arizona a free and easy place to set up shop.
If you had asked anyone at the Republic that day who was likely to have Bolles murdered, everyone would have told you Emprise or the Mafia. Just like if they thought Bolles really had abandoned investigative reporting and wouldn’t be following the trail of a hot story, they’d have laughed.
Don should have been blown to smithereens, but my friend and colleague didn’t die that day. That night I was in St. Joseph’s Hospital with his wife, Rosalie, trying to comfort her – on her wedding anniversary no less – from the terror she was enduring and the horror that still lay ahead.
Don didn’t die for 11 agonizing days – journalists would later lament that, as a good reporter, he knew how to keep a story alive. He held on for those last days as they amputated one limb after another, trying to save his life.
In the end, they lost. We buried Don at a funeral where grief was married to shock. We buried him with steeled backbones and cemented resolve. We wanted everyone involved in this public assassination to be brought to justice. Most were praying for the death penalty. I was hoping the murderers would burn in the hell of an Arizona prison for the rest of their lives.
So I was particularly puzzled in December when The Arizona Republic reported that actor Ben Affleck is interested in producing a movie on the death of Don Bolles. This idea came out of the blue, since even Bolles’ family knew nothing about it. Will Affleck use an existing book on the murder – there are several, all with speculation but no definitive answers – or is he researching on his own? We don’t yet know, but we can presume any movie will have much of what I’ve just described. It will have the horrible explosion and a community’s shared anguish, and there might even be a funeral scene. The producers can pluck from hundreds of memories to present an accurate picture of those two weeks in June, which took place almost 33 years ago.
But almost every scene after that depends on whose story you believe. Almost everything that happened in the police investigation and prosecution from the moment that bomb exploded has many different chapters, including the official one embraced by the State of Arizona and a dozen other theories advanced by people who have spent their lives probing this horrible murder. I have been one of the people who has tried to find out the truth, thinking my friend and his family deserved that. I have made some headway, finding a few things that help tell the whole story, but I’ve never been able to crack through the many layers of this story.
I can’t tell you who ordered the murder on Don Bolles, and that is the one question that demands an answer. Somebody went free for this murder, and the very thought of that dishonors the memory of a great investigative reporter.
But I can tell you this: I don’t believe the state has the right theory on this murder, and that’s because of what I learned in a prison interview with the man who admitted to placing the bomb under Don’s car. As a result, I am more and more convinced that Max Dunlap, the only man still serving time for this crime, is rotting in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
And so I’m left wondering: Just which story will Hollywood tell?
David R. Frazer is a soft-spoken, gentle man who spent his career as a tax attorney. He’s retired now, living in northern Arizona, but that hasn’t dampened the mission of his life, which, since January 1978, has been to fight for the truth about his tax client and friend, Max Dunlap.
Frazer helped create the Max Dunlap Defense Committee, but most people wanted to move on and call this case closed. I’m sure for many years he has felt very lonely in his mission.
“This case stinks,” Frazer told me recently over lunch. “Just look at the evidence.” He’s studied it for so long that he can recite every detail. “Don Bolles’ death demonstrates all the elements of what can but should not happen in our system of criminal justice,” Frazer concludes. “It shows a pattern of incompetency, deception, withholding of information, dishonesty and cover-up.”
Will Hollywood tell the story of this warrior for justice – a man who won’t give up because he’s so certain he’s right and the State of Arizona is wrong? When you look at the facts, you’ll hope so.
Here’s the way the state presented its case against Dunlap: A con man and thief named John Harvey Adamson placed the bomb – he said it was six sticks of dynamite – under Bolles’ car after luring him to the Clarendon Hotel in midtown Phoenix on the pretext that he had information on Mafia ties to Arizona.
Adamson said the bomb was detonated by a remote-control device operated by James Robison, a plumber and part-time hood.
At first, Adamson said he didn’t know who’d hired him. But the major theory of the case that named names soon was supplied by a most astonishing source, a local attorney named Neal Roberts.
Roberts gave police this theory: Local businessman Max Dunlap had hired Adamson as a payback for Kemper Marley, an Arizona rancher and wealthy liquor distributor who was angered over stories Bolles had written about him that cost him a seat on the state’s Racing Commission. (Marley was never charged with any crime in the Bolles case and has since died.)
Police bought the Marley theory from a man they knew was intimately involved in the case. This isn’t a complete list, but here are some of the highlights of Roberts’ involvement:
• The day before the bombing, Roberts held a meeting in his law office with Adamson and another man (a witness said it was not Max Dunlap).
• The morning of the bombing, three vehicles owned by Roberts and his staff were reported stolen. Two were later found at Sky Harbor, while another had been abandoned on a city street. Amazingly, Roberts was never questioned about these mysterious “stolen” vehicles. Could they have been the getaway cars that took the real killers to the airport to fly away?
• The morning before the bombing, Roberts reserved a hotel room out of town for Adamson and his wife for that night.
• In the hours after the bombing, Roberts arranged a plane to get the Adamsons out of town.
• Roberts was frantically trying to raise $25,000 for Adamson immediately after the bombing.
Considering these facts, does the term “co-conspirator” scream at you?
Yet Neal Roberts wasn’t charged as a co-conspirator. Astonishingly, in a piece of legal work I will go to my grave not understanding, he was given immunity from prosecution. For a free ride, he gave police the Marley-Dunlap murder theory that has stuck all these years.
It appears to me, and to many others who have examined this case, that this rush to judgment made officials close their eyes to all the evidence that pointed in other directions – specifically, in the very direction that Don Bolles spelled out as he lay dying.
Adamson also gave up the Marley-Dunlap theory as his 1977 murder trial approached in exchange for a plea deal that allowed him to avoid the death penalty and spend 20 years in prison. (Adamson served that time, was released, went into the witness protection program and has since died.)
In January 1978, Max Dunlap and Jim Robison – who didn’t know each other before the trial – were tried together, found guilty and sentenced to die in the gas chamber for their parts in the Bolles murder. There were three things tying Max Dunlap to this crime: The theory given by Neal Roberts, the affirmation of that theory by convicted murderer John Harvey Adamson, and the fact that Dunlap had delivered a wad of cash to Adamson weeks after the bombing. Dunlap has always maintained he did this as a “favor” to his high school classmate and friend, Neal Roberts.
Those convictions were overturned in 1980, and Max Dunlap walked out of prison a free man. (Robison stayed in prison on an unrelated conviction.) Dunlap asked to be retried in state court and was denied. Then he petitioned the federal courts to be retried so he could clear his name. That was denied, too. If he truly were guilty, why would he try so hard to get a new trial? That seems to me like the move of an innocent man.
A big reason the state wouldn’t retry him was because Adamson was refusing to testify again, and without Adamson, they didn’t have much. (Interestingly, they changed the state law to get Dunlap’s conviction in the first place. Before Don’s death, you couldn’t be convicted of first-degree murder only on the word of an accomplice; now you can.)
But 13 years later, the state again charged Dunlap and Robison with Bolles’ murder because Adamson now said he’d testify in exchange for more concessions from the state – especially financial help for his family. This time, the trials were split. Robison was tried first and was acquitted. (He is now a free man, living out of state.) Dunlap was tried again and found guilty again. He’s been sitting in prison ever since, now an old man in very bad health, but with the full support of his family, which insists he is innocent.
There is compelling evidence that suggests he’s telling the truth:
• James McVay, a trustee in the Maricopa Council Jail in 1977 who had only 30 days left of his sentence, told police Adamson admitted to him that Max Dunlap and James Robison had been framed for the murder of Bolles. McVay claims that after coming forward with this information, a detective threatened him, suggesting he keep his mouth shut.
• Eileen Roberts (no relation to her boss, Neal Roberts, but a witness to the day-before-the-bombing meeting who later took care of Neal Roberts as he was dying), says he told her he was “at the top of the totem pole” in the Bolles murder. When she asked about Dunlap, Neal Roberts told her, “I had my uses for him. He served a purpose. He was always a patsy.”
• The late journalist and New York Times columnist Molly Ivins gave a video deposition of her 1979 interview with Neal Roberts about this case. “Off the record, what he told me was that if there’s anybody who’s innocent in this whole thing, it’s Max Dunlap.” Ivins said her interview so disturbed her that she immediately made an audio tape of its contents and sent it to the attorney general’s office. She said she was never certain authorities looked into it.
Dunlap himself has said in a tape to his family, “I wasn’t involved in this thing in any manner, shape or form. And I thought that I would be exonerated.”
Will Hollywood play Dunlap as a murderer or a patsy?
And there are two other very disturbing things that Hollywood will have to deal with if it attempts to tell the true story of the Don Bolles murder.
Remember the “six sticks of dynamite” that Adamson said he put under Bolles’ car?
Two things indicate that wasn’t possible: One was a re-creation of the bombing by one of Dunlap’s defense attorneys. Six sticks of dynamite blew an exact replica of Bolles’ car to pieces, indicating no one could have survived. Significantly, the Phoenix Police Bomb Squad already knew that. A detective admitted in a deposition that he believed only three sticks of dynamite were used because the damage from six sticks would have been excessive.
That makes some wonder if Adamson really was the one who made and set the bomb.
And then there’s what Adamson told me and Phoenix New Times reporter Paul Rubin when we interviewed him in prison in 1986.
He was sitting a couple feet from my chair in a small interview room. Paul was standing. Adamson was very chatty, answering all of our questions, and I asked him why he was sent to kill my friend.
I’m recalling his words as I write them now, and the same chill I got down my spine that day is coursing through me once again: “I didn’t kill him for a story he’d written. I killed him for a story he was going to write.” I remember I stood up and had to turn away because I was so shocked by his words.
If this con man, thief and liar were telling the truth for a change, he was saying the state’s entire theory was wrong and that eyes should have always been pointed exactly where Don Bolles said we should look.
How will Hollywood deal with all that? Will they even try? Will they dare?