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FBI Releases Records of Investigative Reporter’s Murder

Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles has been dead for nearly as many years as he lived – 47. This week, the FBI released records of its involvement assisting Phoenix police, in the investigation of the firebombing that killed Bolles in 1976. Fascinating memos by federal agents detail how they romanced a “trusting relationship” with Bolles’ killer in order to get information about other suspects, and how as a result, he got off death row – and eventually was even released from prison.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s new information in the 600+ page file, because even after all these years, a lot of content is redacted, like this photo to the right.

And a lot of information was reported years ago by good journalists who sought the truth about what happened. In fact, the then-budding organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, convened a group of dozens of reporters from more than 20 news organizations across the country to finish and build on Bolles’ work just after his death, a journalism collaboration resulting in the acclaimed Arizona Project. (Read more here.) Following the Arizona Project, reporter Don Devereux, continued to investigate the Bolles murder for decades and he had already uncovered some of the information that is citied in this week’s file release. But it is interesting to read the report because it’s clear the feds’ hopes to expose others perhaps involved in the plot didn’t pan out. And those unanswered questions might support theories that some who were involved in the conspiracy, skated.

Bolles had unparalleled chops as a reporter in his day. He reported on corruption in the dog racing industry and its ties to the underworld. He investigated a number of shady land deals and developments in the ‘70’s. During that time Phoenix was in the midst of a boom with Americans fleeing cold climates and crime ridden cities. What they relocated to was no less corrupt.

Through his reporting, Bolles caught investors and developers with their hands in the cookie jar.

A lot of bad people may have wanted a good reporter dead.

Their dirty work was performed by one John Harvey Adamson, a hard-drinking braggadocios thug already known to local law enforcement as a “small-time bookmaker, confidence man, and muscle man” for various criminal enterprises. Adamson got paid to set Bolles up and see to his death. Here’s how it went down: Adamson invited Bolles to a meeting at the Clarendon Hotel on June 2, 1976, to receive documentation implicating a then Congressman in possible land fraud activities. After waiting inside for about five minutes, Bolles was paged to the lobby for a phone call. Adamson was on the other end of the line, proposing a change in the location for the meeting and asked Bolles to drive over to the press offices in the state capitol building.

But there would never be such a meeting. As Bolles backed his car out of a parking space, the bomb Adamson planted under it was detonated by an accomplice using remote controls. The force was so strong, it shattered windows in the hotel and severely maimed Bolles.

But he didn’t die instantly. He said three things to paramedics: John Adamson, Emprise, and mafia. (Emprise owned dog racing tracks across the county and had been the subject of numerous law enforcement investigations for organized crime ties.) Bolles bravely hung on for 11 days in the hospital. Unable to talk with law enforcement officers, he pointed to a photo of Adamson and nodded his head to answer some of their questions. Investigators’ optimistic hope for his recovery and subsequent interviews never happened. Over the next several days, one leg was amputated. Then the other. Then an arm. Then Bolles lost the fight for his life.

What’s not in the files?

There is no indication that the Bureau put much credence in or made much effort to track down Bolles’ information that “mafia” or “Emprise” were involved in the murder. Keep in mind, however, that this document dump is called “John Adamson/Donald Boles Part 01.” Is there more to come?

What is in the files?

The FBI file details how its agents assisted other law enforcement agencies zeroing in on Adamson. They piece together how hours after the bombing, Adamson was whisked away in a private jet chartered by his attorney, Neil Roberts, holed up in a Lake Havasu hotel, and then a couple of days later, brought back to Phoenix by Roberts to talk with police. They searched Adamson’s apartment and found wires and other evidence linked to the art of firebombing, and tracked down the hobby shop in San Diego where the remote devices were purchased.

Before we go any further, we should briefly introduce you to others who were central figures in the investigation. In addition to Adamson, there was:

· Neil Roberts, his lawyer;

· Max Dunlap, a Phoenix contractor;

· James Robison, a Chandler, Arizona plumber; and

· Kemper Marley, a wealthy local businessman who was said to be Dunlap’s “mentor.” Note: Marley missed out on some prestigious gubernatorial appointments likely due to some of Bolles’ previous reporting.

The files go down a long rabbit hole partially detailing the wobbly journey to justice. Adamson, facing death row, plea bargained to second degree murder charges in exchange for a lighter sentence of 20 to 50 years, and, according to a note in the file “that he testify against Max Dunlap, James Robison, [a redacted name], and Kemper Marley, in conspiracy to kill Bolles.” (It is interesting to note that there is a handwritten X across Marley’s name in the memo, which also noted that Adamson had agreed to testify in unrelated criminal matters including “an alleged contract from Kemper Marley to kill [redacted name].” If that case ever went to trial, it is not detailed in the FBI file or in any research I could find online. Marley was never charged in connection to Bolles’ death. Neither was attorney Roberts, although the file notes that as part of his plea agreement, Boles would testify against Roberts for ordering the unsuccessful bombing of a local governmental building “for insurance fraud purposes.” Roberts was arrested in that case, but I was unable to find out how it ended. He never served any prison time.

Of all the people Adamson agreed to testify against detailed in the FBI memo, only Robison and Dunlap were charged in Bolles’ murder. Based partly on Adamson’s testimony against them, they were convicted and received death penalty sentences in 1978. Their convictions were appealed and overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court, and the cases were returned to Superior Court. But believing he’d already satisfied the terms of his plea agreement, Adamson refused to testify again against the pair.

“Adamson now refuses to testify in a retrial of Dunlap and Robison without a better plea bargain,” a memo in the FBI file noted. “Charges against them have therefore been dismissed without prejudice and prosecution is in limbo.”

That put Adamson in double trouble. The state contended that by refusing to testify again against Dunlap and Robison, Adamson was violating his plea agreement, essentially waiving his protection against double jeopardy. Adamson attempted another plea deal which the state refused, and in October of 1980, he was convicted and received a death penalty sentence for the killing of Bolles.

Death Row Talks and the FBI Listens

Death row must have been no picnic. According to the FBI files released this week, Adamson approached the feds with an offer in the summer of 1987. They took the bait.

“Continual contact with Adamson has resulted in Adamson’s agreement to be interviewed for this homicide by the FBI with the specific intent of providing all details of the homicide to include the naming of other individuals responsible,” a file memo notes. It goes on to say a particular Special Agent whose name is redacted, “of the San Francisco division has developed an excellent rapport with Adamson throughout the past several years by virtue of the fact that SA [name redacted] had worked various bombing cases in Phoenix when assigned to the Phoenix division and as result had contact with Adamson.” The Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix office “concurs that SA [name redacted] presence is vital to a productive interview because of Adamson’s trust and confidence in SA [name redacted],” the memo noted.

The Special Agent from San Francisco received approval to travel to the Arizona State Prison and the death row interview took place in early September. Whether their cell-side chat produced any new leads is unclear, but it might have honked off the Arizona Attorney General.

In another document dated in February 1988, the still-unnamed Special Agent sent a memo to the Agent in Charge of the Phoenix FBI stating, “It should be noted that John Harvey Adamson, the individual who was convicted of murder in the killing of Bolles has been in constant contact with writer and wishes to provide a full and complete statement of the murder of Don F. Bolles. This has met with resistance by the Arizona AG’s office who feel Adamson has lied about the incident in the past and will lie about it in the future.”

With Adamson’s appeal of his death row sentence pending, the Attorney General advised against interviews with Adamson. “This decision by the AG’s Office has placed the FBI in an awkward position of cooperating with the AG’s Office and still maintaining a position of trustworthiness with Adamson,” the Special Agent, AKA “writer” continued. With law enforcement in Phoenix and the state in charge of the investigation, “writer” stated, “…it is suggested therefore that this matter be no longer investigated by the FBI as long as current investigation is being conducted by the Arizona AG’s Office…”

That was the latest dated relevant memo in the FBI file just released on Don Bolles’ murder.

But it wasn’t the end of the story. Here’s what we know about what happened later, based on media accounts.

The legal theatrics continued for years. And now all the key players are dead.

Adamson’s appeal of his death row sentence was successful, and his lighter sentence was reinstated. He once again agreed to testify against Dunlap and Robison. Dunlap was found guilty in the spring of 1993, and sentenced to prison, where he died in 2009.

Robison’s retrial was later that year. He was acquitted, but as fate had it, he was not to escape the big house. He pleaded guilty to trying to hire a hitman to kill Adamson and served five years in prison. He died in 2013.

After serving just over 20 years in prison, Adamson was released in 1996. He lived more or less the life of a free man with benefits of the federal witness protection program – until he died a very sick man at just 58 years old, in 2002.

Kemper Marley died in 1990. While online tributes make mention of his name being brought up in the Bolles murder investigation, they note correctly that he was never charged. And those reports honored Marley at least equally for being a philanthropist in the Phoenix community.

Neil Roberts developed serious health issues, likely a result of his drinking problem. His career as an attorney fell apart, and he died in 1999.

The FBI file can be found here.

Postscript: Don Bolles legacy lives on, in the noble work of investigative reporters who followed in his footsteps, and through the collaborative model established by IRE. The street where Bolles was killed is now named after him, and a bill making its way through the 2023 Arizona Legislature could establish a memorial to him in the plaza across the street from the capitol. And none of that is good enough. America needs a free press and more must be done to protect the safety of the journalists who are brave enough to commit to the difficult and often dangerous work of investigative reporting.

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