Editor & Publisher recently has given me permission to include here an op-ed piece I wrote for that publication back in June 2007. A PDF file of that article follows this introduction. While it doesn’t contain the identities of those believed responsible for the 1976 car-bomb murder of reporter Don Bolles with the specificity of newsletters released from 2002 onward, my op-ed comments for Editor & Publisher were actually written with another purpose entirely: to voice serious criticism of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) for its organizational refusal to lead a proposed call for a last-ditch grand jury effort in Arizona to get to the bottom of the Bolles conspiracy. At that point there still were a number of potentially key witnesses with likely knowledge of the plot who had never been compelled to testify both under oath and rigorous examination. With the considerable passage of time, that number necessarily was diminishing year by year, soon destined to disappear completely.
I first made the request to IRE in correspondence and telephone contacts during the opening months of 2006. In a phone conversation in March of that year, IRE Executive Director Brant Houston’s initial reaction sounded to be a positive one. He advised me, however, that he would have to run the idea past IRE’s board of directors. And he suggested in the meantime that I also should consult retired Newsday editor Bob Greene who had directed IRE’s “Arizona Project” in 1976-77 in the wake of the Bolles homicide. But when I did talk to Greene in March 2006, he expressed his own opposition to any renewed law enforcement investigation. He indicated his personal satisfaction with the notion that Jim Robison, though officially acquitted in 1993, still was guilty of being the bomber and that Kemper Marley, though never even charged, somehow must have been the sinister figure behind the crime. Greene’s stubborn opinion appeared to be that there really were “no loose ends,” despite the very contradictory facts on the ground here in Arizona. Later, at the beginning of June 2006, I also participated in a perfunctory, non-committal conference call with Houston and two IRE board members with past and present Arizona affiliations.
IRE Executive Director Houston subsequently notified me that, when my proposal eventually was taken before the organization’s board of directors on or about June 15, 2006, the board simply passed the issue along the IRE’s executive committee to resolve. And, in a follow-up phone message of early July 2006, Houston went on to assure me that, whatever the outcome, a record of the ensuing IRE executive committee discussion and decision certainly would be available to me. But then in early August 2006, as an omen of things to come, Houston suddenly advised me that the executive committee couldn’t be bothered with copies of all of the related correspondence and material which I had submitted to him, asking that I reduce it all to a statement not to exceed a couple of pages. Given the importance and complexity of the matter, I found that to be utterly unacceptable, quickly taking it upon myself to mail complete sets of the crucial communications to all of IRE’s executive committee members. Adding to my gloom, Houston also had noted along the way that Myrta Pulliam, an IRE “Arizona Project” participant from the Indianapolis Star as granddaughter of the Arizona Republic‘s Nina Pulliam, had joined Greene in opposing my proposal.
The anticipated bad news finally arrived in early September 2006 via a phone call from James Grimaldi of the Washington Post, then a key member of IRE’s executive committee. He informed me that the executive committee had decided to table my request without taking any action whatsoever, thereby effectively killing it. Grimaldi was calm and collected to that point but clearly became irritated when I asked him to send me a brief statement in writing summarizing their decision. He not only declined to do so but raised his voice to complain, “What are you trying to do? Embarrass us?”
I waited until the beginning of November 2006, hoping to let the dust settle, before sending a formal letter to IRE Executive Director Houston, respectfully asking him for “a copy of the minutes of the IRE executive committee meeting in question reflecting the discussion and decision regarding my proposal.” I concurrently mailed a copy of that letter to IRE secretary Stephen Miller of the New York Times, also a member of the executive committee. After more than a month went by without an acknowledgment from Houston, I next phoned Miller in mid-December 2006 seeking his help in obtaining a record of those executive committee minutes. Miller immediately reacted in obvious anger, saying that Grimaldi already had made IRE’s position on that subject quite clear to me and that I should stop bothering them. He then said, “I’m getting off the phone,” and he hung up.
The unfortunate “tabling” by IRE’s executive committee also had other notably adverse consequences. The highly influential Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), with its national steering committee of major journalists from all across the country, already had agreed to join the request for a further Arizona grand jury probe in the Bolles case provided that IRE, having sponsored the “Arizona Project,” again take the lead in such regard. When IRE backed off, so did RCFP. A producer for CBS News “48 Hours” also had been giving strong consideration to devoting a primetime hour of updated network coverage to the Bolles case should a renewed official investigation occur. That interesting prospect, of course, evaporated as well. And that’s where the matter sadly remained when in my own frustration I penned the June 2007 op-ed comments for Editor & Publisher.
As I later learned, however, the story only gets worse.
Moving ahead more than five years, at least one thing happily had changed. By 2012 Brant Houston no longer was IRE’s executive director, having resigned that post to join the journalism faculty at the University of Illinois. And Houston’s old office at IRE headquarters in Columbia, Missouri, was occupied by Mark Horvit, a new and younger face less encumbered by the organization’s past history. It now seemed appropriate to try again. As a result, in a memo to Horvit in October 2012, I this time made a request for “copies of the minutes of (1) the IRE board meeting circa June 15, 2006, at which my request was discussed and passed along to the executive committee and (2) the subsequent executive committee meeting evidently in September 2006 at which my request was ‘tabled’ without action.” In sharp contrast to earlier stonewalling, Horvit’s response was prompt and courteous. Yet, as he himself would explain, it still was only compliant to the limited extent possible.
Pulling up the minutes of IRE’s June 2006 board meeting, Horvit sent me the first item of that occasion’s “New Business.” In it, “Houston said IRE member Don Devereux, who worked in the Arizona Project thirty years ago, contacted him and asked the board to request that the Arizona Attorney General reopen the Don Bolles case. Houston said lead members of the Arizona Project said they were opposed to reopening the case. Boardman referred the issue to the executive committee. Houston will send additional information to the executive committee.” Boardman then was IRE board president David Boardman of the Seattle Times. But that was absolutely as far as the organizational records have permitted Horvit to go. His next line to me was a real stunner. “No minutes are taken of executive committee meetings, so there’s nothing I have to pass along from that.” Back in 2006, it now appears that Houston lied to me with his false assurance in that regard.
When I pressed Horvit about IRE record-keeping mandates, he explained that, “The bylaws do not require that minutes be taken at the executive committee.” The only way that an executive committee decision is memorialized, he added, is if the executive committee action has been instructed to be reported back to the full board, hence then to be included in the minutes of the next full board meeting. But, according to Horvit, the action on my proposal evidently was kept neatly within the confines of the executive committee and never reported back to the full board. The implication obviously is an ugly one. By referring it to the executive committee without a report-back specification, some key folks with IRE deliberately took steps to get rid of my proposal in such a manner that there would never be any formal record of whatever happened to it. It just vanished like the “disappeared” in Argentina. They quietly killed and disposed of my proposal without even leaving a tombstone with an epitaph. And in my experience, people who try to hide actions of this sort from public view generally do so because in their heart of hearts the really know what they’re doing is wrong. They generally do so out of a deep concern that, if exposed, they’d have a hard time justifying what they’ve done. Why else would they have engaged in such secretive maneuvers? Bear in mind, moreover, that these are the same journalists and journalism organization making careers out of haranguing the public and private institutions which they cover about providing greater “transparency.”
But has there been another unspoken issue underlying all this? I suspect that such indeed is the case.
When IRE’s “Arizona Project” came to Phoenix in 1976 under Bob Greene’s leadership, there was a decision, which I supported at the time, that we wouldn’t complicate the ongoing law enforcement task by competing with them in the investigation of the Bolles homicide. Instead, as a gesture of solidarity with a slain colleague and a signal that journalists would not be intimidated, we simply would investigate and write the sort of muckraking stories about local corruption that Bolles himself might have accomplished if still alive. In the process, we nevertheless endorsed the direction being taken by Arizona’s official investigation and prosecution. For Greene, a giant figure in American journalism, it reportedly was the “crowning achievement” of his already illustrious career. And the “Arizona Project” was held in equal esteem in IRE’s organizational history.
My sense is that the so-called “lead members” of the “Arizona Project,” along with some other IRE officials, were fearful in 2006 that a renewed grand jury investigation of Bolles’ murder might confirm formally what already was becoming informally apparent. It might confirm that the earlier state investigation and prosecution, endorsed by the “Arizona Project,” had really been badly mishandled, perhaps deliberately so. It might confirm that it actually had produced a monumental miscarriage of justice in which innocent men had been pursued while almost all the guilty escaped entirely. My sense is that those putting the brakes on a possible renewed investigation — carefully obscuring their actions in so doing — were more concerned about protecting their own professional reputations, along with that of IRE, than they were about securing full and honest justice for Bolles. If so, shame on them. Greene himself died in 2008, and I sincerely regret that I no longer can have this conversation directly with him.
The 23 investigative articles eventually published by the “Arizona Project” represented in themselves some excellent journalism. My problems with the “Arizona Project,” fully accepting my own shared responsibility for them at the time, don’t rest with what we did but rather with what we didn’t do. And those problems certainly could have been highlighted as well by a renewed official investigation which sadly never happened.
Let me list them:
- As corrupt as we assessed the Arizona scene to have been at that juncture, even if it was wise not to turn all 36 “Arizona Project” team members loose to muddy up the official Bolles probe, we certainly should have assigned at least several experienced reporters to conduct a quiet but thorough “shadow investigation” of the crime to be sure that the official inquiry was on a righteous path. But we didn’t.
- While investigating and writing hard-hitting stories of the sort that Bolles might have done, we never even bothered to find out precisely what major story he was working on when he was killed, then finishing that one. Had we done so, we also would have realized that Bolles’ dying words about Arizona’s dog tracks and the mob should not have been ignored. But we didn’t.
- To find out exactly what Bolles had been doing before his death, we should have contacted and talked to his particular editor and close associate at the Arizona Republic, a man named Tom Sanford. But we didn’t. As a matter of fact, Sanford himself died violently and mysteriously in January 1977 while the “Arizona Project” was still underway in Phoenix without any of us even being curious about it.
- The “Arizona Project” also should have assigned a small component to remain active at least through the initial investigation and prosecution to make sure that justice truly was being served. But we didn’t, even though getting it right has to be paramount. The prosecution and conviction of those actually responsible for the murder of a journalist — not merely a few sacrificial “patsies” — obviously are essential, as both effective closure and, by way of deterrent, the best protection for the rest of us.
For all of these reasons and others, I’m sorry to say that IRE’s “Arizona Project,” however fascinating to have been a part of, should never be looked on as American journalism’s finest hour.
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Copyright © 2013 Don Devereux, All Rights Reserved
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