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For years, the tall man drank alone. He would arrive before noon at the bar of his choice, with a tumbler brought from home in his hand. Placing it on the bar, he would stare down at the bartender from his six feet four inches until he caught the attention of the man in the white apron.
"Vodka on the rocks," Neal Roberts would say in his somber and sober lawyer's voice. And then he would remain in place, drinking for hours.
All the regular patrons in places like the Ivanhoe Bar, Durant's, the Garnett Lounge and Chez Nous knew him. The awful event in which he had been involved became a legend almost like Tombstone's shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. But few were ever rude enough to bring up the name of Don Bolles in Roberts' presence.
Ever since Bolles, the Arizona Republic investigative reporter, died after six sticks of dynamite were detonated under the seat of his red Datsun on June 2, 1976, there has been a widely held belief that Roberts was actually the mastermind behind the plot.
This theory is supported by the fact that all of the main figures in the case are linked to Roberts. But he was an astute and brainy lawyer who knew how to dodge a bullet. When the cops came to question Roberts, his first move was to reach out for John Flynn, then the best criminal lawyer in Arizona.
With Flynn at his side, Roberts offered to tell all he knew about the killers if the cops granted him immunity from prosecution. Others, like John Adamson, Max Dunlap and Jimmy (The Plumber) Robison, stood trial. They went to prison. The only place Neal Roberts went was to his favorite bar of the day for his daily quota of vodka on the rocks.
Roberts did not escape unscathed. His daily sessions with the vodka destroyed his nervous system. His legal practice disintegrated. Roberts would take fees from clients and forget to represent them. He was brought before the bar association on charges. He was arrested repeatedly for drunk driving. Finally, he was sent to the county jail for six months. And they took away his license to practice law. By now, Roberts is a stooped and sick man who requires one of those metal frames on wheels to help him get around. I always thought that if anyone ever got Roberts on a witness stand under oath, we would all learn how the murder of Bolles came about.
And no one was more qualified to get this out of Roberts than Tom Henze, one of Arizona's premier criminal lawyers.
The confrontation took place last week, but most people overlooked it. Henze called Roberts to the stand to testify in the retrial of Robison, who is once again facing a possible death sentence in the Bolles case.
Earlier, Henze had told the jury that Roberts was the actual mastermind of the death plot. It was really Roberts who ordered Adamson to kill Bolles. His client, Robison, was an innocent man. Backing up that contention was the fact that Adamson had been at Roberts' law office early on the morning of the bombing. And, later that day, Roberts arranged to have Adamson flown out of town on a chartered plane and put up at a hotel in Lake Havasu City.
Henze brought in a man named Hank Landry to testify before Roberts. In the old days, Landry was a professional burglar who served time in prison. With Henze prodding him, Landry told how he heard Roberts say he wanted Bolles out of the way.
Landry suggested shooting Bolles. But he remembered Roberts insisting the job be done with dynamite, because, Roberts said, "I want it loud and clear."
Landry said that on the day of the bombing, under Roberts' orders, he drove Adamson to the airport to get out of town. He said he made the trip in Roberts' yellow Cadillac, which Roberts then ordered him to destroy.
Landry left the stand on crutches. One of his legs has been amputated. Henze's plan had been to use Landry to destroy Roberts' alibi before Roberts even took the stand.
Roberts entered haltingly, leaning on his walker. He seemed calm. He wore a teal-blue suit and a pale-blue shirt buttoned up to the neck, with no tie. He has spent the previous six months in jail for drunk driving and so was sober for the first time in years.
Judge Norman Hall peered down at Roberts. "My understanding is that you have a medical problem that prevents you from sitting for long periods of time," Judge Hall said. "If you need a recess, let me know. If you want to stand up at any time, you are free to do so, as long as you can be heard over the microphone."
Roberts recalled for Henze that Adamson came to his house near Virginia and Central at about 5 p.m. on the day of the bombing. Roberts said he remembered the day because the Suns were playing for the NBA title against the Boston Celtics.
"Adamson told me he needed a lawyer because the police were looking for him in connection with the bombing of Bolles that day. So I called a lawyer named Bob Novak, and also made an effort to contact another lawyer named Steve Scott."
Roberts did not recall riding in the car to the airport with Adamson. Neither did he recall ordering Landry to dispose of the car. But he had no trouble remembering that at the time of the bombing, he had been driving a racing dog to the airport for shipment out of town. Throughout his testimony, Roberts kept getting up out of his chair because of his medical problem. Once on his feet, he moved about falteringly on his walker while continuing to testify.