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What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a padlock on the gate and a single strand of barbed wire coiled over the top of the fence. When visitors call, which is rare, a city worker in a blue pickup comes to open the lock and waits the 10 or 15 minutes it takes to see all there is to see.

It’s not much. A broken chair, an abandoned guard shack, and, at the far end of the dusty gravel lot, a small white Datsun slumped over four flat tires.

The car is the last official occupant of this old evidence yard. It has been here since the spring of 1976 when a bomb ripped through the beige carpeted floor, mortally wounding its owner, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.

It took 11 days for Bolles to die from his ghastly wounds. It has taken almost 20 years to decide the fate of his car.

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As prosecutors prepare to release the car next month from two decades of police custody, a controversial plan has surfaced to exhibit the bombed-out Datsun at a museum named for and financed by the late Kemper Marley Sr.--the man implicated but never charged in Bolles’ murder.

The Bolles family is incensed. Bolles’ former colleagues, including investigative reporters from around the nation who teamed up after Bolles’ death to “finish his work,” are outraged.

And George Weisz, the Bolles admirer and soft-spoken lawman who came up with the idea as a way to honor the slain reporter, is beginning to be sorry.

“Of course, there would be great irony in displaying the car at the Marley Center,” concedes Weisz, who has spent most of his professional career chasing Bolles’ killers. “But that wouldn’t be the first strange turn this case has taken, would it now?”

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Late last year, Weisz, a special agent for the Arizona attorney general’s office, realized that Bolles’ car had probably performed its last official duty. As evidence in the reporter’s murder, the car was memorialized in court diagrams and photos.

It seemed to Weisz almost criminal to send such a famous piece of Arizona history to the junkyard. Every year on the anniversary of Bolles’ death, Weisz has taken time to visit the car and pay tribute to the man he knew only from bylines.

Embalmed by the desert air, the car looks eerily the same as it did the day Bolles died.

The porcelain white finish of the car is unscarred by rust and the ignition key is still frozen in the “On” position.

But on the driver’s side, where the full force of six sticks of dynamite rocked Bolles and his bucket seat out the door, there is a jagged gaping hole in the floorboard.

Late last year, Weisz found out that the Arizona Historical Society’s Marley Center museum was scheduled to open soon in Tempe. Weisz contacted director Paul Piazza and asked if the car might find a home there.

Piazza was enthusiastic. “As an artifact of 20th century Arizona history, the car would be perfect for us, controversial, but definitely appropriate,” he recalls telling Weisz.

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The fact that Kemper Marley’s daughter sits on the museum’s board of directors did not worry him, Piazza says. “I will not discuss details of that discussion, but obviously there was some concern expressed. The family is unhappy about how Mr. Marley’s name has been linked to this crime all these years.”

But, when staffers at the Arizona Republic heard about Weisz’s idea, the debate over Don Bolles’ car heated up.

Comparing Marley’s role in Bolles’ murder to that of a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, a news columnist asked, “What do you suppose the odds are that, in 20 years time, a state agency in Oklahoma City will be naming a multimillion-dollar facility in honor of Timothy McVeigh?”

By last week, Bolles’ family was making sure that everyone on both sides of the proposed arrangement knew they wanted no part of it.

“There is no way in hell we’re going to let our father’s car be a trophy in a Marley museum,” says David Bolles, 43, Don’s eldest son. “I’ll come there with a chain saw to destroy it myself if it comes down to that.”

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This is not the first bizarre turn in the long chronology of the biggest murder probe ever undertaken in Arizona.

Convictions have been set aside; death sentences have been overturned; reputations have been destroyed, only to be rebuilt and torn down again.

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Detectives have retired and gone off to become cowboy singers, suspects have died and witnesses have long since moved away. But even as Bolles’ recently scattered ashes sink into the desert, the question of who really killed the 47-year-old reporter in 1976 continues to haunt.

The man who planted the bomb implicated Marley in a sworn confession. And prosecutors over the years have said they believe Marley was ultimately behind the killing.

But Marley, who vigorously maintained his innocence and successfully sued a group of reporters who suggested otherwise, never was indicted or formally charged.

A big, tough-talking descendant of pioneers, Marley was a wealthy land baron who made millions more as one of Arizona’s largest liquor distributors. By the time he died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 83, Marley had made generous cash gifts to Arizona educational and government institutions, including $1 million to the historical society for the museum.

In 1976, Bolles had written stories raising questions about a conflict of interest between Marley’s liquor business and his appointment to the state’s Racing Commission, which oversaw liquor sales at racetracks. Marley lost his seat on the prestigious commission.

By the morning of June 2, 1976, when Bolles set out on the last assignment of his life, Marley was yesterday’s news. Bolles had agreed to meet a small-time hustler and barfly who was boasting he had proof of Mafia ties among a couple of high-profile politicos.

Bolles, professionally wary from his many years as an investigative reporter, was skeptical, but intrigued enough to check it out. Before he left, Bolles, cautious as always, stuck a note in his boss’ typewriter detailing who he was meeting and where.

The temperature was already close to 100 and Bolles was warm in his trademark leisure suit--the powder blue one his wife, Rosalie, had bought him for his birthday a few weeks before.

The Datsun was new too. Although it barely accommodated Bolles’ lanky 6-foot, 3-inch frame, the car fit his sporty self-image and got good mileage--an important consideration in a household with seven children and a newsman’s salary.

June 2 was Don and Rosalie’s anniversary and they planned to celebrate by taking in a movie--"All the President’s Men.”

Bolles did not expect to find Deep Throat at the Hotel Clarendon in midtown Phoenix, just John Harvey Adamson, a smooth-talking tow truck operator who always wore black sunglasses and liked to boast about the mobsters he knew.

But Adamson never showed. As Bolles waited in the hotel lobby, Adamson was outside fastening a pack of six dynamite sticks and a remote-control receiver to the undercarriage of the reporter’s car. When the phone rang later in the lobby, Adamson was on the line, telling Bolles the meeting was off.

Walking back to the parking lot, Bolles paused at the hotel pool to watch a little girl splash her way across the shallow end. “She’ll be a fine swimmer,” Bolles called out to the girl’s mother. He gave a jaunty wave and took his last steps to the car.

Bolles folded himself into the Datsun’s bucket seat and began backing out of his parking space. A few hundred feet away, a remote-control device built for flying model airplanes transmitted a signal exploding the dynamite beneath Bolles’ legs.

The driver’s side door flew open and Bolles’ upper torso was thrust out the door. Bolles’ legs were shattered, his suit ripped from his body, his face blackened by the blast. Incredibly, Bolles was still conscious--and he was talking.

“They finally got me. John Adamson was the man. Find him,” Bolles groaned to witnesses who rushed to his side.

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Bob Horath was the first member of the Phoenix police bomb squad to arrive at the scene. Bolles was on his way to the nearest emergency room but bits of flesh and clothing were still simmering on the hot asphalt around the car.

“It was a horrific scene,” Horath recalls. “But the force of the explosion did a lot more damage to the occupant than it did to the car itself. It was blasted, all right, but not blown to pieces. From the exterior, that little Datsun looked pretty good.”

Horath ordered the car wrapped in a giant sheet of plastic and taken to a police garage, where for the next three weeks he and other investigators pieced together the bomb, using not only the car but fragments from the bomb extracted from Bolles’ legs.

Before Bolles died on June 13, doctors had amputated both his legs and one of his arms.

“He suffered like no man I have ever seen before,” recalls Jon Sellers, the chief homicide investigator on the case. “I went up there to the hospital to interview him and he was totally, completely lucid. This was something I never expected, considering his condition.”

Bolles continued to name Adamson, who was arrested and charged with murder after Bolles’ death. And, in one of his early interviews with police, Adamson named two accomplices--the man who triggered the bomb and the man who paid him to get Bolles.

Adamson also named Kemper Marley. According to the hit man’s court testimony, “Marley wanted Bolles killed” because the reporter had angered and humiliated Marley with embarrassing stories about his past.

Adamson struck a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to 20 years and two months in prison. James Robison, a stocky plumber with mob connections, was convicted of triggering the bomb and sentenced to death. Max Dunlap, a close Marley friend and associate and the man Adamson said hired him to kill Bolles, was also sentenced to death.

But after two years in jail, Dunlap and Robison won their appeal to have their convictions overturned. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that their defense attorneys should have been allowed to more closely question Adamson, who took the Fifth Amendment in court. Thanks largely to the efforts of the state attorney general’s office and Sellers, Adamson was retried and sentenced to death in 1980 after refusing to help retry the other two men.

By 1988, when Arizona’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional, all three men were in prison--Robison for conspiring to have Adamson killed in prison and Dunlap for an unrelated assault.

Adamson is due to be released from prison later this year, when he will probably join a witness protection program, according to state sources. The last appeal still pending belongs to Dunlap, who is seeking an early release.

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As the case played out its convoluted legal history, Bolles’ white Datsun remained in the wings awaiting its final entrance.

“For three different trials over more than 13, 14 years I carried photographs and evidence from that car in and out of courthouses,” recalls bomb expert Horath. “Now that I’m ready to retire, I can’t believe the case still goes on.”

For Sellers, who also testified at the many Bolles’ trials, there are still questions, but with 20 years gone, few answers on the horizon.

“I think we probably know everything we ever will know about this case,” says Sellers, who left the force more than a decade ago. Today, he runs a private investigative agency and, between jobs, writes and performs country and western songs.

“Some questions about this case may never be answered,” Weisz says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t use the case to say something important about reporters--especially about this reporter, Don Bolles.”

David Bolles, who says the family has been seriously weighing the car’s fate, confirmed last week that they have formally requested that the car be destroyed.

Weisz says that if the Bolles family continues to object to exhibiting the car, he will not pursue the plan. “Legally, the car is theirs to do with as they wish and I understand the way they feel. But I really hate to see it go. . . .”

* Staff writer Paul Dean contributed to this story.


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