[Originally published in Devereux Newsletter No. 51 (revised), October 30, 2010]
“As a journalist, you have to print the truth whenever it emerges, even if it takes thirty years.”
—Journalist Deborah Nelson
Arizona State University graduate and 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner, April 5, 2009
Author Robert Blair Kaiser has played an invaluable role in recently shared research leading to this newsletter. I am deeply grateful to him for that. All of the opinions expressed herein, however, are not necessarily his and, should there prove to be any errors of fact, they are entirely my own.
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Much has been written—and will continue to be—about the homicide of Phoenix reporter Don Bolles back in June 1976. Unlike some other areas of the world, mainstream journalists in the United States have been murder victims only very infrequently. The most recent of them more than three decades later was newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey in Oakland, California, shot to death in 2007.
But it now appears that the true murder toll of journalists in the Phoenix area in the mid-1970s actually may have been double the number previously realized. Tom Sanford, Bolles’ usual editor and close friend at the Arizona Republic, also died violently in January 1977, another very likely homicide that was hushed up at the time—and ever since—as a suicide.
The Sanford story best begins in June 1976, when Bolles was the victim of a fatal car-bombing in the parking lot of a mid-town Phoenix hotel. Immediate investigative jurisdiction routinely fell to the Phoenix Police Department, then headed by an all-too-politically pliable chief named Larry Wetzel.
Phoenix, Maricopa County, and the Sheriff’s Office
The City of Phoenix, of course, lies within the boundaries of Arizona’s immense Maricopa County. Much like Joe Arpaio today, the elected sheriff of Maricopa County in those years also was both ambitious and controversial. And in the 1970s, Sheriff Paul Blubaum’s reasons for controversy were at once similar and dissimilar to those of Sheriff Arpaio currently. On the similar side, each could be described as having a narcissistic personality and being a “loose cannon” in the Republican Party. On the dissimilar side, while much of Arpaio’s controversy today involves immigration and abuse of authority issues, Blubaum’s controversy then stemmed largely from his inflated sense of his own intelligence and his struggle to run a sheriff’s office many of whose officers were in a not-so-quiet state of mutiny.
Recently located in Orlando, Florida, where he now works and lives, Blubaum’s administrative assistant with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) at the time of Bolles’ death was a fellow named Russ Brunning. According to Brunning, when Bolles was killed, and since Phoenix is in Maricopa County, Sheriff Blubaum immediately approached Phoenix PD Chief Wetzel with a suggestion of joint jurisdiction in the investigation.
Blubaum’s underlying motive, Brunning added, was the sheriff’s personal conviction that Wetzel couldn’t be trusted on his own to direct a competent and honest investigation of the reporter’s murder. The 1970s in Phoenix, Brunning recalled, were “a wild and woolly time” in a good-old-boy city still characterized by “lots of cowboy hats and boots.” There were, in effect, guilty and elite interests in town who could have reason and ability to rig any investigation run by Wetzel alone.
Wetzel, noted Brunning, was reportedly neither pleased nor receptive to Sheriff Blubaum’s joint jurisdiction request. The Phoenix police chief in turn must have complained about it to a few folks on high among his political backers in the Phoenix Establishment at the time. Wetzel, long retired, to date has not responded to a list of questions about such history, so at this point in the narrative let’s turn at another former law enforcement official named Newlin Happersett. Now retired on a small horse ranch in Cave Creek Az., Happersett, a decorated colonel with the Green Berets in Viet Nam, next headed MCSO’s SWAT Squad under Blubaum in the mid-1970s, later moving on to become police chief of Peoria Az. for a time.
As Happersett now tells it, Blubaum may have had an additional reason for wanting to be in on the Bolles investigation beyond his considerable distrust of Wetzel to do it righteously. According to Happersett, Bolles had contacted the sheriff requesting a get-together to run some critical information by him less than a week before the car-bombing which ended the reporter’s life. That face-to-face with Bolles couldn’t be scheduled in time, Happersett said, so Blubaum never knew exactly what the topic would have been, further whetting his curiosity and concern.
A Credible Threat
But changing everything soon after Blubaum’s meeting with Wetzel regarding possible joint jurisdiction in the Bolles case, Happersett recalled, the sheriff evidently received a credible threat of some sort not only to his own life but to the lives of his family as well. While he was never privy to the details, Happersett acknowledged, Blubaum at once began to use Happersett and some other members of the MCSO SWAT Squad as personal escorts and bodyguards. Moreover, Happersett added, Blubaum also directed another MCSO official and especially close friend named Jim Profitt to arrange an ongoing security detail to keep an eye on his home and family. And the notion of joint jurisdiction was completely abandoned.
Profitt is now deceased, thus unreachable for comment. But Brunning remembers that Blubaum abruptly became preoccupied with personal and family security concerns around the time of the Bolles homicide. Former MCSO official Gene Georges, now retired in Scottsdale Az., also concurs. And Coldren “Skip” Carnes, once a search and rescue officer with MCSO and family friend of the Blubaums at the time, recently has recalled as well having been aware of a serious threat in that general time frame “against the sheriff and his family.” Like Happersett, Brunning, and Georges, Carnes, now retired in Tempe Arizona, said he never knew the details.
Whatever it was, it must have been a matter of extreme alarm to Blubaum. When I began working as an investigative reporter for the old Scottsdale Progress in 1979, then not being aware of this background, I had occasion to phone Blubaum once with a query touching on the Bolles case. In my one and only contact with him, Blubaum’s reaction indeed was unexpected and unusual. More than three years after Bolles’ death, he simply declined to cooperate. “I’m afraid that sticking my nose in the Bolles case would put my own life in danger,” Blubaum told me, quickly ending the interview.
After returning from Idaho to Arizona well into retirement, Blubaum himself was killed here in an unfortunate accident in May 2009, so I now can’t get back to him in pursuit of an explanation. A surviving daughter, Cindy Flake of Mesa, Arizona, only remembers without any details that he “did talk to family about the Don Bolles case from time to time.”
Tom Sanford didn’t have exclusive editing responsibility for Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. But by a comfortable arrangement between them, he did handle most of Bolles’ copy. He aptly could have been described as the reporter’s “special editor.” Sanford was certain that his oversight substantially improved Bolles’ writing, and the reporter seemed more than content with Sanford in that role. They were friends.
Shared Crucial Secrets
Sanford and Bolles also shared some other things as well. They were both Democrats at a newspaper dominated at overall publishing and editorial levels by conspicuously partisan Republicans. And they shared some crucial secrets. Although assigned since 1973 to a beat at the state capitol, Bolles was continuing to do discreet investigative work on matters which the newspaper brass had ordered him to leave alone, topics, for example, like the suspected ties between the Mafia and the state’s greyhound racing business. Sanford not only knew about Bolles’ otherwise sub rosa activities but, confirmed by Sanford’s widow Janet and Bolles’ friend Kathy Kolbe, Bolles even was giving him backup copies of some especially sensitive research materials for safekeeping.
When Bolles became the victim of a car-bomb in June 1976, blaming the attack precisely on that mob/dog track nexus before he lost consciousness, some 36 reporters—most from elsewhere—then assembled in Phoenix that fall as the so-called Arizona Project under auspices of the newly formed Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) of which Bolles was a charter member. Coming from Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was one of them, joining the others in a collective gesture of solidarity with a slain colleague. We stayed until the spring of 1977 when a series of 23 articles about serious problems of organized crime and corruption in Phoenix, the rest of Arizona, and the region were released for publication in a number of newspapers across the country.
As a journalist who undoubtedly knew more than anyone else about what Bolles had been doing before he was murdered, Sanford requested to be included among the several people from the Arizona Republic selected by the newspaper to join the Arizona Project. His newspaper, however, not only refused his request but actually ordered Sanford—according to his widow Janet— not even to communicate with members of the Arizona Project.
Sanford was so disgusted, frustrated, and angered by this, Janet has recalled, that he decided—also against Arizona Republic wishes—to carry out his own private investigation of the Bolles homicide over ensuing months. Since he protectively didn’t share his findings with her, Janet can’t be exactly sure where this effort was leading her husband. But she does remember that he did not have much confidence in the official investigation, which completely ignored Bolles’ dying words, conducted by Phoenix PD and the Arizona AG’s Office. And Sanford would have kept careful notes of his own investigative work, Janet has said, emphasizing his “meticulous” habits in that regard. Bolles’ widow Rosalie and Kathy Kolbe also were aware of his independent investigation.
Sanford Family At Risk
Yet we do know a couple of things about Sanford’s investigation of Bolles’ death. Sanford’s daughter Susan was home for the Christmas holidays from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff from late December 1976 into early January 1977. When Sanford returned home, perhaps a bit agitated, late one evening toward the end of her vacation, Susan pressured him to tell her where he’d been. According to Susan, he reluctantly admitted that he had just finished interviewing someone, learning information in the process, he said, sufficient to put him and their whole family at risk. There are explicit indications as
well that the person with whom Sanford had been talking that night was Phoenix attorney Neal Roberts, a pivotal figure in the plot to kill Bolles and a potentially loose-lipped drunk. The later in the day one chatted with Roberts, the more one was likely to hear.
There’s an additional reason why Sanford’s time spent with Roberts, probably in early January 1977, could be an important factor in this tale. Before Bolles was killed, there is no question that he and at least one of his dog track-related sources, the late Fred Porter, were under private surveillance as orchestrated by someone in the matrix of Buffalo’s Emprise Corp. and Funks Greyhound Racing Circuit of Phoenix, then co-owners of all six Arizona dog tracks. In the aftermath of the Bolles homicide, the focus of that private surveillance looks to have been shifted to attorney Roberts, apparently because his penchant for booze and bragging rendered him a weak link in the conspiratorial chain.
Roberts Writes a Tell-All Book
Roberts was aware of the danger that he might be in, quickly protecting himself by writing a tell-all manuscript about the Bolles plot and putting out the word every way possible that he was now an “author.” It supposedly was for a book tentatively to be titled Other Lives, Other Lies, but it was really an insurance policy which he reportedly stashed with an unidentified lawyer to be released if Roberts should die of anything other than natural causes. As a result, if killing him as well couldn’t be contemplated to eliminate the risk he posed, someone at least could keep a close watch on Roberts and anyone worrisome with whom he was seen talking.
Attorney Roberts, by the way, finally did die naturally of last-stage alcoholism in 1999. His confessional manuscript, if it has survived, so far still remains hidden away somewhere.
Returning to 1976-77, however, Roberts realized that the notoriety which he had gained in the Bolles case, even if he never was prosecuted, inevitably was going to put an end to his legal practice as it previously had existed. Consequently, not long after the Bolles homicide, the attorney put his combined law office and residence in mid-town Phoenix up for sale. After some months on the market, a young female real estate agent for the firm handling the property dropped by to see Roberts late one afternoon to brief him on her progress with a prospective buyer. Since it was about time to close the office anyway, Roberts brought out a bottle, poured them both drinks, and they spent their own “happy hour” in casual conversation.
In the middle of that night while she was sleeping, the female real estate agent was awakened by a phone call. It was a male voice, she later told me, who spoke “like a lawyer,” informing her that her life wouldn’t be worth much if she ever was seen talking to Roberts again. Someone obviously had been monitoring them who knew who she was. As a result, when the sale went through soon thereafter, she asked her firm to send someone else for the closing. She was frightened at the time and still frightened when she talked to me, asking not to be identified.
That incident must have happened in the same general time frame as Sanford’s interview of Roberts. There is every likelihood that their get-together was observed as well. It then might have taken another week or so to run Sanford’s plate and to complete a reasonably thorough background check on the car’s owner. It eventually would have been discovered that Sanford not only was an editor at the Arizona Republic. He was Bolles’ editor. If subsequently confronted, Roberts might even have admitted that he’d been in his cups, probably having said far too much. And a red flag might have gone up.
In the latter months of 1976, Sanford also found himself getting cross-ways with the Arizona Republic on something else. He mistakenly had backed a young reporter for the newspaper in a Prescott-related story which soon proved to have been very badly mishandled by that reporter. It admittedly was a problem, but the newspaper’s reaction to it, given Sanford’s quarter-century of service to the Arizona Republic, looked to have been vastly disproportionate. It obviously may have been colored by longstanding friction on other issues, most recently those concerning Bolles. Whatever the case, by January 1977 the newspaper was threatening to sanction Sanford by demoting him from assistant managing editor to copy editor.
Sanford had had enough, and he opted to resign instead. His last day at the Arizona Republic was January 24, 1977. Clearing out his desk and packing up at the end of the day, he and newspaper staff writer Paul Dean went out together for a few drinks on the way home, with Sanford making a remark with an appropriate sadness along the way about how many years of his life were represented by the stuff “in that box.”
His last day at the newspaper also would prove to be the last full day of his life.
In the morning of January 25, 1977, Tom Sanford made a phone call to Don Bolles’ widow Rosalie. Family friend Kathy Kolbe was visiting and listening when Rosalie received the call. It was unclear to them where Sanford was at the time, but he seemed to be whispering over the phone as if he didn’t want anyone around him to overhear what he was saying.
Sanford told Rosalie that he had learned some remarkable new information regarding the death of her husband of which he felt she deserved to be aware, something he obviously didn’t want to discuss over the phone. He was being secretive, and they arranged to meet the next day at a Phoenix park in a remote neighborhood where no one would know them.
After hanging up, Rosalie immediately took it upon herself to phone and reach Phoenix PD Detective Jon Sellers to let him know about her scheduled meeting the next day with Sanford. As lead investigator in the Bolles case at that point, the dubious efforts by Sellers et al had just resulted in the arrest and jailing nine days earlier on January 16, 1977, of Max Dunlap and Jim Robison, jointly charged with the reporter’s murder. (I haven’t yet had an opportunity to ask Sellers what, if anything, he then did with Rosalie’s heads-up about Sanford and his apparent new information in the case. It remains on my “to do” list.)
Later, around noon that day, Sanford went to lunch with Bill Meek, a former Arizona Republic staff writer who already had made a successful transition to public relations work in town. According to Meek, he and Sanford had an upbeat lunch and conversation, talking among other things about Sanford’s possible move to public relations as well and his upcoming interview in a few days with Arizona Public Service Co. (APS) to that end.
It should be noted that Sanford’s departure from the Arizona Republic the previous day did not represent a family financial crisis. Sanford’s wife Janet still was employed and working full time as a journalist at the same newspaper. And Sanford himself quickly was looking at multiple new job prospects including, besides APS, another public relations position then opening up with the University of Arizona. His years here had made him a respected figure with many friends through whom to network.
After lunch with Meek, Sanford came back early that afternoon to his modest home in northeast Phoenix. His son Kyle, then a young college student, also returned home briefly about 2:15 p.m., speaking to his father upon arrival and again as he was leaving around 2:30 p.m. Contrary to a subsequent MCSO report, Kyle never actually saw his father, only having short verbal exchanges with him through a closed bathroom door.
Sanford Found Dead
About 4:30 p.m. that same afternoon, Sanford’s body was noticed by a passerby on the ground near his car just off the Beeline Highway on Forest Road 143 leading toward Four Peaks. Since this was a desert location outside the city, the sheriff’s office was notified. After other deputies reached the scene, an MCSO detective assigned to the case named Bert Andrews eventually arrived about 5:30 p.m. Sanford’s wallet was discovered on the car’s front seat, so his identification had been easy even though the top part of his head was blown off by a shotgun blast.
In January 1977 MCSO was in transition from the Blubaum regime to that of newly elected Sheriff Jerry Hill. With Blubaum as a consultant, his former aides Brunning and Profitt had founded a Phoenix-based security company called the National Crime Prevention Association. Through their own grapevine, news of Sanford’s demise rapidly reached them at the security firm office. According to Brunning, Blubaum at once realized who Sanford was and grasped the possible implications. Keeping himself out of it, Brunning now recalls, Blubaum asked Profitt
to phone MCSO, encouraging county law enforcement officials to keep their eyes open for a conceivable link between the deaths of Arizona Republic reporter Bolles and editor Sanford.
Absolutely nothing in MCSO records, however, so far has turned up indicating that the suggestion to MCSO ever was carried out. Looking back, to me and others, it now seems more than likely that someone at MCSO already had received a very different message which couldn’t be ignored, perhaps from the same people who successfully had scared Blubaum off his interest in joint jurisdiction in the Bolles case in June 1976.
Sanford’s Death Ruled a “Suicide”?!
Whatever occurred, by the following day, January 26, 1977, MCSO already had ruled the Sanford case closed—“cleared by exception”—as a “suicide.” (See form at right.) It obviously was a hasty conclusion but one ostensibly supported by the fact that the shotgun belonged to the victim, there were no conspicuous signs of anyone having been with him, there was a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in the car, and Sanford’s son Kyle admitted upon family notification that his father could have been upset about leaving the newspaper.
Less than 24 hours after Sanford died, and with an amenable endorsement by Medical Examiner Dr. H.H. Karnitschnig at the time, his death conveniently was determined to have been “self-inflicted.” Based entirely on what little MCSO reported, Dr. K. (as he often was called) also concluded on January 26, 1977, that, “This man had been despondent over losing his job on January 24, 1977. He was found dead in the desert near his car with a shotgun wound of the head. The gun was found between his legs. An opened bottle of whiskey was found in the car.” In other words, Sanford was depressed, got drunk, and killed himself.
But now taking a more thorough look, MCSO Detective Andrews’ ensuing actions from late afternoon of January 25, 1977, into the following day only can be described in retrospect as a non-investigation. Merely compared to a basic list of standard police procedures, this is an easy call to make. When compared to a summary of procedural requirements in similar situations recently provided to me by David Boyer and Paul Parker, current director and chief death investigator respectively of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, MCSO’s handling of the Sanford case back in 1977 becomes even more inadequate, misleading, and difficult to explain unless it was deliberate.
Let me count the ways:
- Both MCSO and Dr. K. issued their verdicts before the toxicology report was completed. When done, it actually showed that Sanford’s blood was “negative for alcohol.” He hadn’t been drinking after all. The half-empty bottle of booze, in effect, may have been a “prop.”
- While one was never found, there was no apparent effort by MCSO even to look for a suicide note.
- No gun-shot residue test was performed by MCSO on Sanford’s hands to see if he really had fired a weapon.
- No barrel-to-trigger and arm length measurements were taken by MCSO to find out whether Sanford actually could have positioned and fired the weapon in the fashion claimed. In point of fact, the shotgun in question had a markedly long barrel which would have made it quite difficult for him—not a tall man—to have placed the butt on the ground, put the tip of the barrel alongside his nose, and then reached the trigger.
- MCSO’s most able homicide investigator in the 1970s was thought by some to have been Detective Ed Calles, now retired on Phoenix’s west side. When I recently reviewed MCSO’s report on Sanford with him, Calles also was puzzled by the shotgun having been discovered “lying between the victim’s legs…pointing toward the victim’s head.” Based on his extensive experience, Calles said, the normal recoil of a shotgun with its butt on the ground should have kicked the weapon out at least a foot or two away from the body. It looked to Calles that someone might have neatly placed the weapon where it later was found.
- Perhaps most startling, there were absolutely no fingerprints recovered from the shotgun, not even smudged partials. The weapon was pristine, evidently wiped clean. MCSO’s crime scene tech in the Sanford case was Claud Johnson, now retired in the area of Lakeview/Pinetop Az., after going on to a lengthy career with the state’s Department of Public Safety. Johnson was FBI-trained and, according to his MCSO supervisor at the time, Bob Stiteler, now retired in Hereford Az., Johnson did a commendable job as a crime scene tech. Johnson not only included the lack of fingerprints on the shotgun in his written report but also found it so unusual that he still remembers bringing it to Detective Andrews’ attention on the spot. But Andrews didn’t seem to care, Johnson recently recalled. Everyone with a law enforcement background to whom I’ve shown the fingerprint report, including a number who were with MCSO back at that time, have been seriously perplexed by this aspect of the Sanford investigation. All have agreed that loud alarm bells should have sounded. In such a suicide where the victim is not wearing gloves, Stiteler acknowledged, “you always find something.” Current death investigator Parker of the local medical examiner’s office also concurs that the absence of fingerprints under those circumstances clearly should be considered “relevant…when determining the manner of death.”
- A single set of footprints was visible in the desert soil leading from the driver’s car door back to an opened trunk—where the shotgun had been transported in its case—and then up along the passenger side to a spot in front of the vehicle where the body was found. But no effort even was attempted by MCSO to confirm whether or not those footprints were consistent with Sanford’s shoes.
- In another glaring MCSO failure, no attempt was made to determine whether any significant items previously believed to be in Sanford’s possession subsequently were missing. In the aftermath of Sanford’s death, his widow and family looked for but were unable to find (a) Sanford’s copies of Bolles’ more sensitive research materials previously given to him by the reporter as backup or (b) Sanford’s notes on his own investigative work regarding the Bolles homicide. It seems that all of his Bolles-related files, undoubtedly kept at his house, just as suddenly had vanished along with his life.
- MCSO detectives never talked to Sanford’s widow and his friends at all before rendering a “suicide” verdict, thus never being aware of his close relationship with a newspaper colleague who also had met a violent death some seven months earlier. MCSO investigators never even bothered to ask questions that would have revealed that Sanford actively had been looking into the Bolles homicide, recently learning things that he felt could have put him in jeopardy as well.
- MCSO detectives similarly never bothered to talk to Sanford’s widow and his friends to get a better picture of his mental state, that while certainly sad about leaving the Arizona Republic after 25 years he was moving on, exploring new job prospects, and making future appointments with people like Rosalie Bolles. As Janet Sanford has noted, they had a good marriage, four kids, and no overwhelming financial problems. “Tom never would have just abandoned us like that without any explanation,” she said.
A Murder Scenario for Sanford
Based on the information which is now known, it is a simple task to imagine a murder scenario for Sanford.
Two men could have come to Sanford’s house in the afternoon of June 25, 1977. They could have subdued him, forced him to turn over his Bolles-related files, and grabbed the shotgun case and shells from where they readily were available in a bedroom closet. It was no secret that he kept a few firearms at his house.
Rendered helpless, Sanford—along with the loaded shotgun in its case—could have been placed in the trunk of his car which was then driven by his killer on the 30- to 45-minute trip into the desert. They would have been followed by the accomplice in a second vehicle, the latter serving as lookout on the remote, lightly-traveled road as well as providing the killer’s ride back to town.
A relatively small man, Sanford weighed only about 140 pounds. Opening the trunk after leaving his victim’s wallet and a half-empty whiskey bottle in the car, the killer could have put a restrained Sanford over his shoulder, picked up the shotgun, and carried his quarry to a spot in front of the vehicle where he was propped up and shot. With Sanford’s body sprawled on the ground, the killer could have dropped the shotgun between his victim’s legs and joined his companion for the return trip to Phoenix.
Wearing gloves, the killer might have assumed that Sanford’s fingerprints—since it was his shotgun—already would have been on it. He might not have anticipated how thoroughly Sanford had wiped the weapon clean before last putting it away.
But the killer also could have done all of this with an assurance from those who hired him that he never would have to worry about much of an investigation by the local sheriff’s office.
If the MCSO investigation was a cover-up, as it appears to have been, recent interviews of Detective Andrews, now retired on Phoenix’s east side, haven’t been very helpful. He reportedly had brain tumor surgery in 1995 which has left him with an impaired memory.
About all that Andrews presently can contribute to the conversation is that, while he distinctly recalls the 1976 Bolles case, he doesn’t remember ever having been provided with information in 1977 letting him know that Sanford had any association with Bolles. And, as a matter of MCSO procedure at the time, he said, there would have been no way for Sanford’s death to have been “cleared by exception” unless an instruction to do so came from his immediate superior who had been assigned to the case with him, MCSO Detective Supervisor Dominic Spezzano. Apart from that, all other details seem to have vanished in the mist of memory loss.
Based on my own years of experience as a journalist dealing with law enforcement personnel, Andrews doesn’t strike me as someone who ever would have taken it upon himself to do—and not to do— what occurred in MCSO’s Sanford investigation. Since it must have been Spezzano who ordered the case “cleared by exception” without the usual investigative requirements, it probably was Spezzano as well who authorized Andrews to begin shutting things down—removing the body and re-locating the shotgun—before the crime scene tech even arrived. I suspect that Spezzano must have played a crucial role in what happened, in quickly steering the case to a desired outcome.
Andrews’ recent, one-sentence description of MCSO Detective Supervisor Spezzano was, “He was a cops’ cop.” That may have been true more literally than Andrews realized, and the cop to whom Spezzano once belonged was Sheriff Blubaum.
A full month before I first tracked down and talked to Andrews, former Blubaum administrative assistant Russ Brunning already had told me that there was one man in MCSO’s detective division on whom the sheriff liked to rely in any situation requiring special handling. “That guy always could be counted on by Blubaum to do whatever was needed,” Brunning said. And that fellow was none other than Detective Supervisor Dominic Spezzano, according to Brunning, always eager to please the sheriff by doing exactly as instructed.
Brunning’s designation of Spezzano as specifically having been “Blubaum’s guy” also recently has been confirmed by Blubaum’s SWAT commander Newlin Happersett and Gene Georges, another MCSO official at the time. They agreed that the sheriff often depended on Spezzano in sensitive investigations.
Now retired in Mesa Az., Spezzano unfortunately has been debilitated recently by a stroke and heart condition that reportedly have left his recollections in even worse shape than those of Andrews. Spezzano’s wife Helen declined my interview request of him, emailing, “I cannot take the chance of him being upset. He gets very emotional when he can’t remember things.” In all fairness, she also has insisted that he never knowingly would have participated in a “cover-up.”
But the ultimate responsibility for mishandling the Sanford investigation really shouldn’t fall on Spezzano either. MCSO, after all, is organized along the lines of a military hierarchy. The officers down the ranks, like good soldiers, tend to do what they’re told to do if they want to keep their jobs. When Spezzano instructed Andrews that the Sanford case should be “cleared by exception” and closed as a suicide, probably authorizing Andrews to begin shutting down the crime scene prematurely as well, Spezzano in turn undoubtedly would have been following his own orders from above.
When Hill took office in January 1977, many of Blubaum’s top people stayed on at MCSO, some only temporarily, some for the long haul. It took a while for Hill to get a grip on the organization, to make his own high-level hires, and even to begin to familiarize himself with those in the lower ranks.
If immediate pressure was applied to MCSO not to let Sanford’s death become the murder of another journalist. Brunning strongly doubts that the prominent people applying such pressure would have gone directly to Hill. He was a Democrat, new to the top job, and a somewhat unknown quantity to the Phoenix area’s notably Republican Establishment. Instead, Brunning believes, they would have gone to one of the well-placed carryovers from the Republican Blubaum regime whom they already knew.
Now retired in Goodyear, Arizona, Andy Best concurs. A former instructor of Costa Rican national police in a CIA-controlled program under the auspices of USAID, Best later served as MCSO’s deputy chief, Blubaum’s second in command, over 1973-74 until they parted ways.
Someone from the former Blubaum regime still in higher echelons at MCSO in January 1977, realizing the special role so ably played by Spezzano for Blubaum, could have conscripted Spezzano for much the same task in the Sanford case, Brunning surmises. Others agree. It’s just too much of a coincidence to have occurred any other way. As a result, without any concern for a possible link between the deaths of Bolles and Sanford, an unwitting MCSO detective was assigned to the latter’s case without a clue that Bolles and Sanford even knew each other, along with a “do-as-he’s-told” supervisor apparently ordered to put a lid on it.
Should We Be Shocked?
Should we truly be shocked that some MCSO officials could have conducted a rigged investigation in 1977? Probably not. Even on the prior watch of such a supposed straight-arrow as Blubaum, bad things happened.
As an example, Happersett, a self-described friend of Blubaum, recently acknowledged that the sheriff once called him during an evening back in the 1970s, asking him to take charge of an investigation out near Pinnacle Peak where a woman had died after being struck by a car while walking along a rural road. When Happersett got there, he learned that the car which swerved off the road to run down the woman was being driven by her husband and his girlfriend. Contacting Blubaum to advise him that it sure looked like “murder” to him, Happeresett was ordered by the sheriff immediately to close the case as an “accident” with no one to be charged. Happersett said he reluctantly did as he was told but remains troubled to this day about the night he probably took part in the cover-up of a homicide.
Moreover, Happersett also told me that he remembers hearing gossip in some MCSO circles back at that time “about the guy who supposedly shot himself out in the desert.” While he didn’t recall Sanford’s name, he suspects that it must have been that case, with at least a few folks within MCSO evidently doubting the suicide claim.
Who would have had the weight to cause the Sanford cover-up by the sheriff’s office? When I recently asked that question of former MCSO official Georges, “The first name that comes to mind,” he replied, “is Harry Rosenzweig.” Close to Barry Goldwater, Rosenzweig was a local Republican powerhouse who received a great deal of negative attention in IRE’s Arizona Project series published in the spring of 1977. Best similarly noted that some at MCSO undoubtedly would have complied with almost any demand coming from people of Rosenzweig’s stature.
I frankly suspect that the honchos then on the publisher’s floor at the Arizona Republic also may have been all too willing to go along with the cover-up of whatever truly happened to Sanford. The late John Kolbe, a columnist at sister newspaper Phoenix Gazette, probably was closer to the publishing brass than many other journalists at either one. When Kolbe next came home after Tom Sanford’s death, he made a strange and telling observation—probably the emerging “party line”—to Kathy Kolbe, soon to be his ex-wife. According to Kathy, John confided, “I don’t know what really happened to Tom, but it’s best that people look at it as a suicide.”
I recently shared some of my findings with former Arizona Republic reporters Jana Bommersbach and Athia Hardt, both of whom knew and liked Sanford as an editor. They each acknowledged that the reason they had accepted his death without question as a suicide at the time was because it was so quickly and authoritatively presented to them as such by those running the newspaper.
It’s not hard to see a situation in which the primary motivation for a rapid cover-up of Sanford’s death by some of the Phoenix 40, Chamber of Commerce-types then running the city—Arizona Republic publishers included—really would have been to protect their own collective interests, not to insulate the few perhaps complicit in killing him. The Bolles murder already had turned Phoenix into a national joke. Thirty-some reporters already had come to town to poke their pencils into all of its dirty secrets. Imagine what could have happened to the community’s reputation if another local journalist also turned up murdered just months later while all the out-of-town reporters were still around! It would have been an absolute public relations nightmare.
Suicide Doesn’t Fit the Facts
All that I now can say as a personal conclusion is that I don’t believe Sanford killed himself. I honestly can’t offer that opinion with utter certainty because I wasn’t there on that desert road at the fateful moment on January 25, 1977, nor have I talked yet to anyone else who was. But I just can’t make his suicide fit into the rest of the facts and informed conjectures as I presently find them to be. I strongly suspect that he was murdered and for reasons related to Bolles.
This is not to say that Sanford didn’t have his own real problems at the time. He was 55 when he died, already suffering from some of the ailments which often afflict us as we reach middle age. His health problems were not life-threatening, but they certainly could be unpleasant. He was changing jobs at a difficult age to be starting over. And he also was experiencing periodic bouts of depression which today would probably be diagnosed as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
But that last problem also highlighted an underlying strength. Sanford was a U.S. fighter pilot in World War II, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his successful strafing of German supply lines. He eventually was shot down over France, managing to avoid capture by Nazi soldiers searching for him by hiding with a friendly French farm family until other U.S. troops finally reached the area. Though later hit sometimes by spells of depression, he remained a very resolute guy. He was never a wimp. He was the sort of man who would persevere.
When Sanford died, his young son Kyle, then only considering his father’s health problems and final hassles at the newspaper leading to his departure, was willing initially to contemplate suicide as a possibility. Sanford’s widow Janet, however, never has accepted that idea. And as Kyle subsequently has learned more about the Bolles-related context of his father’s death and the now disturbing MCSO non-investigation of it, his opinion today is much the same as his mother’s and mine.
When Bolles was car-bombed, Arizona Republic executive Bill Shover and a few security staff immediately pulled together all of Bolles’ files from the newspaper itself, the capitol press room, and his home. Bolles’ wife Rosalie even let them know that he had some sensitive materials hidden up in the rafters above their vehicle garage, files which former Arizona Republic investigative reporter Jerry Seper believes were among those later destroyed at the newspaper.
Sanford’s widow Janet and son Kyle recently recalled that Tom also used to stash materials on occasion in the attic of their northeast Phoenix home through a portal reached by stepladder in the roof of the carport. In the exceedingly remote chance that we might find Sanford’s missing Bolles-related files still waiting there, Kyle and I paid a visit to his old house, arranging with the current occupant to take a look. If anything ever was there, it’s not there anymore.
But it obviously was an emotional experience for Kyle to be in his old house where he last spoke to his father many years ago. It was apparent, for instance, how easy it would have been to move his father out through a rear patio door and into his car in the carport without being seen by neighbors or from the street. Most intensely, however, Kyle also stood for a moment looking down a hallway from the living room which led to a closed bathroom door at the other end. Remembering how his father’s voice had sounded from behind the door on that last afternoon, Kyle wondered aloud whether the stress he’d heard in his father’s voice that day could have been the sound of fear, not depression. Tom’s widow Janet has suspected for awhile that the people who came to the house to kill Tom that day already might have been there when Kyle unexpectedly arrived home to pick something up, shutting Tom and themselves in the bathroom with the door closed until Kyle left.
When I was asked to join the old Scottsdale Progress in 1979 to take another look at the Bolles case, the first thing I did was to pay a courtesy call on Bolles’ widow Rosalie. And the first thing Rosalie did was to take me to see family friend Kathy Kolbe. That is when I initially listened to their suspicions that Sanford had been murdered. Jerry McElfresh, then my managing editor at the Progress, shared his concerns with me about Sanford’s death at the same time.
I’m embarrassed to admit, however, that in the course of my years of investigative work for the Scottsdale Progress on the Bolles case and in later years of scrambling as a freelancer to stay solvent, I never got back until a few years ago to actively reviving my curiosity about Sanford. Much of the instigation in that direction came from my recent research collaboration with author Robert Blair Kaiser. Kaiser once wrote years ago for the Arizona Republic and knew Sanford personally at the time.
Sanford’s Death Even Escaped IRE Notice
I’m also embarrassed and puzzled by another conspicuous failure. As a member of IRE’s Arizona Project team which was actually in Phoenix when Sanford died, I can’t figure out how his death somehow escaped our attention. I recently asked IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit at the University of Missouri to check the comprehensive index of the Arizona Project’s massive research archives now stored at his university library. Horvit soon reported back to me that Sanford’s name does not appear in the project index at all.
Why didn’t we notice Sanford? There were four journalists from the Arizona Republic working with us on the Arizona Project. Someone among them—Bob Early perhaps—must have been aware of the special relationship that had existed at their newspaper between Bolles and Sanford. Why hadn’t someone suggested that we talk to Sanford while he was still alive, let alone be concerned when he also died so violently?
Investigative journalists long have been aware of the penchant in virtually every major jurisdiction—whether out of laziness, incompetence, or corruption—for murders occasionally to be misclassified as suicides or accidents. When it happens, it does so to the benefit of reduced law enforcement work loads and improved statistics. Ironically, an article called “Hidden Homicides” on that very subject written by a couple of reporters from Houston, Texas, just appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of the IRE Journal. It encouraged all journalists to be ever watchful.
But just because we sadly weren’t being watchful in 1977 doesn’t mean that the reasons we should have been concerned about Sanford’s death at that time now should be met with indifference in 2010. As a distant namesake of mine once remarked shortly before a chagrined Queen Elizabeth I had his head removed, “Reasons are not like garments, the worse for wearing.”
Consequently, this newsletter is my belated effort to make up for those shortcomings. And I have one final thought in that regard. If there is any way under the circumstances that I’ve outlined for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office now to re-classify Sanford’s manner of death—if not from “suicide” to “homicide” then at least to “unknown”—I urge the Sanford family to make such a request and the local medical examiner to honor it.
NEXT — Brad Funk and Neal Roberts, a couple of John Adamson’s friends.
Copyright © 2013 Don Devereux, All Rights Reserved
Journalists, historians, teachers, and students are free to quote from any of this material in writings of their own, provided that they do so with proper attribution and acknowledgement of applicable copyrights.