Don Bolles Murder

Plea Deal Theater

Tucson-based Joe Bonanno clearly was the Mafia boss in Arizona back in June 1976 when Phoenix reporter Don Bolles was the victim of a fatal car-bombing. Since Bonanno in that capacity oversaw the mob’s silent partnerships in all six Emprise/Funk greyhound racetracks in the state at that time, he wouldn’t have been pleased with Bolles’ persistent investigative efforts to make public that “skim money” relationship. And Bonanno must have been even less pleased by the reporter’s dying words, accurately attributing the lethal attack on him to folks tied to the dog tracks and the Mafia.

Nevertheless, Bonanno undoubtedly had considerable confidence in a covert misdirection of the official investigation, soon to be controlled by then AzAG Bruce Babbitt over whom the mob boss evidently had the requisite leverage. Bonanno also presumably had good reason to believe that Phoenix PD and the local news-setting Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette sister papers would follow Babbitt’s lead in what sadly would become an epic miscarriage of justice.

While corrupt lawyer Neal Roberts, Brad Funk’s drinking pal and true co-conspirator in the Bolles homicide, had his own personal reasons for choosing Max Dunlap as the designated “patsy,” Bonanno would have been supportive of Kemper Marley, Dunlap’s friend and mentor as well as a local liquor and land tycoon, also being added as a shadowy and sinister figure lurking in the background of the fabricated version of the plot. Bonanno and Marley were quite well acquainted, but they happened to be seriously on the outs at the time.

A source very familiar with Marley confided to me that Marley once had been a willing and reliable contributor to an off-the-books political slush fund that Bonanno used to assemble every major election cycle. For some reason by the mid-1970s, however, Marley had begun to reject all of Bonanno’s periodic requests for such financial donations. And, coming from someone supposedly sympathetic and with money to burn, those refusals were said to have deeply angered Bonanno.

The Funk family already had their own reasons for wanting to trash Marley. With Emprise and the Funks then facing possible expulsion from Arizona greyhound racing because of Emprise’s recent felony conviction in federal court for conspiring to hide Mafia ownership of a Las Vegas casino, Marley quietly had indicated a willingness to take over control of the state’s dog tracks if so needed. The Funks wrongly assumed that Marley must have joined those trying to kick them out. But in point of fact he merely was looking for a way on a temporary basis to protect his exclusive and lucrative liquor business with the tracks should Emprise and the Funks get booted, not something he otherwise wanted to see. And for reasons similarly related to Bonanno’s leverage on Babbitt, that legal threat to Emprise and the Funks would eventually disappear as well.

Within days of the June 1976 car-bombing of Bolles, Neal Roberts saw to it that bits and pieces of the ensuing “frame” began to surface, including very specific suggestions of Dunlap’s guilt, perhaps Marley’s as well. And just that quickly the thrust of the official investigation began shifting away from Bolles’ own assignment of blame. It was starting to look like Bonanno might soon have little to worry about.

But then something unexpected and unpredictable entered the picture. Before the end of that same summer, thirty-some journalists from all around the country began to congregate on the top floor of the old Adams Hotel in Phoenix — calling themselves the Arizona Project — under sponsorship of Investigative Reporters & Editors of which Bolles had been a charter member, pledging to carry on the work of their slain colleague. What if they became troubled by the official decision to ignore Bolles’ own dying words? What if they started to dig deeply into the alternative scenario being offered? That obviously could become a huge problem. “How best to prevent that,” the mob boss then must have pondered.

Much of what would happen next necessarily was centered around a minor local hoodlum named John Harvey Adamson who in reality had only served as an errand boy, messenger, and driver for others involved in the plot. He rather quickly was arrested by police in June 1976 in consequence of having been identified by Bolles himself before losing consciousness as the person who lured to reporter to the fatal location. The evidence against Adamson almost immediately became so overwhelming that he just as rapidly had to realize, if he hoped to avoid a death penalty for any level of participation, that he obviously would have to engage in a plea deal and cooperate with authorities. Curiously, however, four more months then went by without any actual movement in that direction.

It must be remembered that Adamson really was confronted by two different kinds of potential death sentences. One was the official version, absent a plea deal, for any role in a capital murder plot. But in negotiating a plea deal, he also had two choices: either to tell the truth or to lie about the identities of others involved. Enlisted to carry out the murder of Bolles were no less than three Mafia fellows, all Chicago transplants to the Phoenix area. Rocky D’Ambrosio and Frank Mossuto had been responsible for provision of the dynamite used to construct Bolles’ car-bomb, and Carl Verive, the actual killer, was the one who planted the bomb and then triggered the remote control device to detonate it. Given the substantial outreach of the Mafia at that time, Adamson’s survival odds if he chose to rat-out his mob accomplices would have been slim to none in any jail or prison system in the country. As he candidly confided to an acquaintance back in June 1976, “My people don’t give immunity,”

Finally in late October 1976, Arizona Project editor Bob Greene, on loan from Long Island’s Newsday, got puzzling word that Arizona land fraud kingpin Ned Warren wanted a meeting. Sending a couple of project reporters to talk to Warren, the latter indicated that he not only was authorized to speak for Adamson but that Adamson was now ready to negotiate a plea deal if the terms were acceptable. Adamson, in effect, was at last prepared to confess and to identify others complicit in the Bolles homicide. The presumed motive for Warren’s intercession, encouraged by Warren himself, was a hope to gain some points with law enforcement which might win him a measure of leniency in his own ongoing federal and state criminal fraud cases.

As would have been anticipated, the Arizona Project duly notified AzAG Babbitt. The latter replied that, while not to be conducted via the press, he indeed was prepared to begin negotiating directly with Adamson’s lawyers regarding the details of a plea deal. And soon into November 1976 those discussions — leading to Adamson’s confession naming Dunlap as the man supposedly behind the plot — quickly got underway, predictably making official all of the prior groundwork carefully laid by Roberts. In part by Adamson falsely enhancing his own role, the Mafia figures conveniently never came up. Nor, of course, did Roberts and Funk. And though not named and charged, Marley unfairly remained under a dark cloud of suspicion.

Yet as I now look back on this plea deal history, it’s all too apparent that there’s even more wrong with it. Let me point out a few major problems.

First, I recall being told by one of Adamson’s lawyers years ago that a plea deal option explicitly was on the table from the very moment that Adamson was arrested and represented by legal counsel in June 1976. Prosecutors obviously had been eager from the get-go to learn who was behind the plot, by whom Adamson had been employed. The four-month delay certainly didn’t come from the prosecution side, and all that Adamson easily needed to do was to inform his attorneys, with whom he was in regular and close communication, that he was ready for plea discussions to start. There was absolutely no need whatsoever for the Warren-related drama with the Arizona Project on that issue.

Frankly, I now believe that Adamson must have been instructed by Roberts to hold off on any plea deal conversations until he received a green light to proceed, and such only would occur after the Arizona Project eventually got involved. As Bonanno must have calculated after pondering the matter, the best way to keep the Arizona Project from questioning a dubious plea deal and confession would be to make the Arizona Project itself an active and integral part of the process. And that is exactly what happened. Having taken the bait, the Arizona Project even highlighted its plea deal assistance in a special sidebar with article 11 of 23 in the ensuing series published in the spring of 1977, a self-satisfied reflection of having helped the Bolles case on its way to an ostensibly successful conclusion.

Second, Warren’s intercession with the Arizona Project also was not what it pretended to be. In 1976 he already was well into the medical consequences of congestive heart failure. As a result, even relatively modest prison time would be a death sentence, and he knew it. In actuality he then soon died as he must have expected in a prison hospital of such heart disease in 1980. Accordingly, the motive for his intercession with the Arizona Project was not based on sentencing concerns. Hoping to win some favor with his own criminal prosecutions was not what it was all about.

Instead the answer can be found right in the Arizona Project’s own subsequent interview of Warren. In it Warren openly acknowledged that he chose to become a career con-man because of the great pleasure he always got from the con itself. “I enjoyed the challenge and the thrill of it, the matching of wits,” he almost gleefully admitted. And, in pitching Adamson’s plea deal to the Arizona Project, undoubtedly at Bonanno’s request, Warren was given the opportunity to pull off one final con on a group of journalists in town to honor Bolles, the very reporter whose investigative work had been a factor in bringing Warren down. Warren must have been chuckling when it was done.

Suffice it to say that Bonanno and Warren knew each other well and got along. Warren even let some Mafia soldiers pose as salesmen for his land promotions as a way to give them handy employment cover if questioned by authorities. And Bonanno gave Warren access to the Mafia’s well-oiled money-laundering operation in southern Arizona’s Cochise County, a key reason why, despite his arrest and prosecution, most of Warren’s extensive profits from years of land fraud were never recovered.

Warren indeed would have been delighted when asked by Bonanno to stage a bit of plea deal theater. But the last laugh would have come from Bonanno himself. To borrow an old and much used cliché, he prospered by playing chess while the rest of us in the press simply were playing checkers.


Copyright © 2020 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.

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