A few years ago, a pal of mine pointed out a tall, pale man leaning on his walker in front of the Luhrs Building in downtown Phoenix.
That's Neal Roberts, he told me, the guy from the Bolles case. I knew very well who Roberts was, though I hadn't recognized him on the street. The attorney who had once prided himself as being dapper and dashing now looked decrepit and defeated.
I'd written extensively about Roberts back in 1986, after being assigned the task of revisiting the June 1976 assassination of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.
Paul Dean, a friend of Bolles and fellow Republic reporter, told me then: "We'll never know what happened in the Bolles case unless Neal Roberts rises up on his death bed and says, 'I've been living with this son of a bitch all these years and this is what happened.'"
But, in the end--which came for Roberts last month at the age of 66 in his small Sunnyslope apartment--he proved impossible for police to nail. Though never charged in the conspiracy that stole the 47-year-old investigative reporter's life, Roberts undeniably was a centerpiece of the tragedy.
Compelling evidence suggested, among other things, that Roberts had met with some of the conspirators just minutes before the bombing, that he'd hid at least one of the bombers (John Harvey Adamson) hours after the fatal explosion, and that he'd attempted to raise money for Adamson's defense.
A few days after the murder, Roberts told a reporter that the attention being paid him by police reminded him of "1939 Nazi Germany, and I'm the worst Jew in the world."
But Roberts never really had to explain the accusations that swirled around him, in large part due to his gem of a criminal-defense attorney, the late John Flynn.
Flynn--who years earlier had represented Ernesto Miranda, famous for the Miranda warning police use to inform suspects of their rights--swung an amazing deal for Roberts. Prosecutors granted him limited immunity in return for a murder theory. (As a hedge, Roberts later invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination in various court proceedings.)
Roberts quickly provided authorities with a working theory: He said Bolles perhaps had been killed because of negative stories the reporter had written about famed liquor magnate and landowner Kemper Marley Sr. (Roberts maintained until the end he didn't know anything about the conspiracy for sure.)
He said he'd arrived at his theory after talking with Phoenix contractor Max Dunlap shortly after the bombing. Dunlap was a friend of Marley's, who also was close with the bomber, Adamson. He and Roberts graduated together from Phoenix North High School, class of 1948. Dunlap now is serving a life sentence for his role in the Bolles murder.
None of the ubiquitous characters who dotted the Bolles landscape could top Neal Roberts. He walked in many worlds--often meeting his buddy Adamson in the early morning hours to sip Irish whiskey at a dingy midtown bar called the Ivanhoe. In the afternoons, he was known to play a variation of whist called "pitch" with the rich and powerful at the posh Arizona Club.
Said his ex-wife, Antje, after the Bolles homicide: "Somehow, [Neal] seems to attract people who are scum, leeches. Yet he's far too bright for that kind of company."
For sure, he was an enigma. I recall the buzz I felt when I picked up the phone one day near the end of my months-long Bolles project.
"This is Neal Roberts," he said. "I'm calling to tell you I won't be answering the questions that you were so kind to send me ahead of time."
I asked him why he'd taken the trouble of declining my interview request in this way.
"A gentleman always returns his calls," Roberts replied, very politely. Then he signed off.
Though Roberts wouldn't chat--smart of him--John Adamson would, and did. A colleague and I spent hours with Adamson in a death-row interview at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, where he then resided. (Adamson is now a free man and in a federal witness-protection program.)
Adamson insisted Roberts had nothing to do with the Bolles murder, that he'd just been helping out an old drinking buddy--himself--who got caught blowing up a reporter. "Neal and I had a lot of laughs together," Adamson said. "I don't think he knew anything until after the bombing."
It wasn't as if Adamson had protected Roberts over the years. As part of his plea bargain, he testified three times against Roberts and another Bolles murder conspirator, Jimmy "The Plumber" Robison, in connection with a January 1976 bombing-for-insurance-money of a Phoenix office building. The first trial ended in a hung jury, the second in conviction and the third--after an appellate court overturned that verdict--ended in acquittal.
Roberts died in his bed, apparently penniless and forgotten by all but old-time Phoenicians and any Bolles case aficionados who remain. One person who won't and can't forget Roberts is George Weisz, now a top aide to Governor Jane Hull.
Weisz worked for years on the Bolles case as a special investigator at the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
To say Weisz "worked" the case is akin to saying Ken Starr "worked" Bill Clinton: The labyrinth Bolles case has consumed Weisz, to whom the adjectives dogged and tireless are apt.
Weisz, among most others, never could quite figure out Neal Roberts. I remember the frustration Weisz would express over the incessant riddles that Roberts would invent, teasing and cajoling his eager listeners, playing his natural role as the man somehow in the middle.
I spoke with Roberts three or four times over the years, always briefly, cordially and without getting more than a benign morsel of information. I recall the last time we spoke, maybe four or five years ago. To my surprise, he answered the phone at a business that prepared personal-bankruptcy petitions.
I instantly recognized his voice--a kind of Arizona slick hick--haughty patrician meets easy twang. Roberts was slurring his words, and it was before noon. I knew he'd recently served a few months in jail on an aggravated drunken-driving charge. I also knew he had been a longtime alcoholic.
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"Neal Roberts?" I asked him.
"Yes, it is," he said, not missing a beat.
I asked him if he remembered me.
"Sure do, sir," Roberts replied. "You're the guy who used to call me all the time about Bolles. Interesting case. Anything going on with it?"
"Not that I know of," I told him, adding it was about the last thing in the world I planned to write about in the future.
Then he died.