Famous Last Words

Reporter Murdered: Back in the 1970s, Arizona was arguably even more corrupt than it is now and any reporter who probed its seamy side was risking his life. Don Bolles paid with his.

But after Bolles, a 30-year Arizona Republic reporter, was assassinated by six sticks of dynamite placed under his car, getting anyone to pay for the crime was another story.


Arizona in the 1970s was a wild place, rife with con men, land-fraud artists, and criminals who didn’t hesitate to kill witnesses or threaten reporters, recalled former Arizona Republic investigative reporter Al Sitter in a 2006 interview.

“Those were dangerous days.”

Whenever I visit Phoenix, as I did recently, I think about Don Bolles, fearless when it came to taking on corruption in high places. He was an old-fashioned, tenacious investigative reporter, doing a dangerous job, not for bylines but because it was the right thing to do and because he felt the calling.

“He probed the influence of the Mafia on Arizona dog and horse racing, uncovered bribery and kickbacks on the state tax and corporate commissions, investigated a conflict-of-interest scandal involving two state legislators and exposed scandals involving the sale of Arizona land to people across the country,” the Arizona Republic reported.

Bolles’s relentless campaign did not endear him to certain powerful people. He knew the risks and was cautious, insisting on meeting sources in public places and even, for a time, putting tape on the hood of his car to make sure no one had tampered with it. He’d gotten death threats. He’d been sued. He believed his phone had been tapped.

On June 2, 1976, Bolles, 47, planned to take his wife, Rosalie, to a movie to celebrate their wedding anniversary. But first, he agreed to meet a local thug and greyhound racing dog owner named John Harvey Adamson at a hotel after Adamson promised information about a land deal involving politicians. While Bolles was inside, Adamson attached the dynamite to the car’s underside. When Bolles returned to the parking lot and started his car, it exploded. “They finally got me,” he told a man who rushed to his aid. “Emprise-the Mafia-John Adamson-Find him.”

Bolles endured the amputation of three limbs before dying a painful death 11 days later. Police soon arrested Adamson, who admitted planting the bomb. He claimed he was hired by Max Dunlap, a wealthy contractor. The circle of suspects widened and the motivation seemed clearer when Adamson said Bolles’s stories had angered millionaire liquor wholesaler-rancher Kemper Marley Sr., one of Arizona’s richest men.

Bolles’s stories had made Marley look bad just as he was trying to get appointed to the Arizona Racing Commission. To Marley’s embarrassment, Bolles pointed out that Marley had been prosecuted for grand theft when he was a state highway commissioner. He also reported that Marley served on the State Fair Commission when it got into financial trouble.

He was an old-fashioned, tenacious investigative reporter, doing a dangerous job, not for bylines but because it was the right thing to do and because he felt the calling.

Perhaps Marley was just a very public-spirited citizen willing to give his time to Arizona’s greater good by serving on commissions. Or maybe he saw the commissions as conduits to power, influence, popularity, and money.

Dunlap’s connection: He was raised by Marley. Adamson agreed to testify in return for a 20-year prison term. Police then arrested Dunlap and James Robison, an ex-con plumber accused of triggering the remote-controlled bomb.

Both were found guilty of murder, and of conspiring to kill Bruce Babbitt, then Arizona attorney general, who had also angered Marley.

The case bounced around the courts for years. Dunlap and Robison were sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned, and the case against Robison was dismissed when Adamson refused to testify in a retrial.

Adamson, with murder charges renewed against him, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was released from prison in 1996, dying in 2002. Dunlap’s first murder conviction was overturned after he served two years on death row; he was convicted a second time in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison, but eligible for parole after 25 years.

On May 2, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency took just minutes to reject Dunlap’s request for release on the basis of illness and innocence. Dunlap, 78, was not present.

Marley was never arrested. In fact, a Phoenix jury awarded him $15,000 for emotional distress because of news articles about the slaying. He managed to get named to the Arizona Racing Commission after all. In 1989, the Arizona attorney general said that new leads indicated that Marley had no connection with the killing.

Marley died of cancer at the age of 83 in 1990 at his La Jolla beach home. Dunlap is the only person who remains behind bars for the contract killing of Bolles. Marley’s real role remains lost in the shadows of time. Did he order Bolles’s murder, or did the others risk possible death sentences to curry favor with a very powerful man, even without his advance knowledge?

Dunlap isn’t saying.