The Don Bolles case continues to be a political tar baby for anyone who gets close to it. The latest Brer Rabbit is new Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.
One of Woods' first acts as successor to Bob Corbin was to fire Judson Roberts, an assistant attorney general who was co-prosecuting the resurrected case.
Don Bolles was a 47-year-old reporter for the Arizona Republic. He died in June 1976 from injuries sustained in a car-bomb explosion.
Roberts learned of his termination nine days ago as he listened to his car radio. The manner of his firing, not the firing itself, surprised him. "People on the defense side threatened us that some or all of us would be dismissed on Grant's first day in office," Roberts tells New Times. "Then it happened. I hope this isn't the first step in sweeping this case under the rug."
Some close to the Bolles case say Roberts' firing is a blow to the prosecution because of his excellent working knowledge of the alleged murder conspiracy's tricky facts. Others, such as Phoenix defense attorney Larry Debus--a staunch Woods supporter--applaud Roberts' dismissal.
"That case was not going to be won by Jud Roberts as a prosecutor," says Debus, who worked on Bolles co-defendant Max Dunlap's successful appeal for a new trial in the late 1970s. "Jud is a lousy lawyer, and he's miserable to deal with. If this case is to be won, you'd have to get Roberts off of it. It was a brilliant move by Grant."
Woods' inaugural strike is just the latest chapter in Arizona's own criminal-justice briar patch. Why did he pull the plug on Jud Roberts? Wasn't Roberts doing the job?
Woods tells New Times that his decision to fire Roberts has "nothing to do with politics whatsoever." He adds that he "would never take a step that would hinder our ability to effectively prosecute the case."
Woods points out that co-prosecutor Warren Granville and former State Representative George Weisz, who heads the murder investigation, still have their jobs.
Several sources tell New Times that defense lawyers despised Roberts. By most accounts, Roberts drives an insufferably hard bargain in a world where greasing the judicial wheels is as important as the just disposition of a case. Roberts, one associate admits, is "not a people person, to put it mildly." And that's from an admirer.
Roberts' brusque, occasionally sarcastic manner and his inability to bend have long rubbed his legal adversaries the wrong way. Unlike some of his former peers at the Attorney General's Office, however, Roberts is reputed to be thorough, if tunnel-visioned, to a fault.
Some say Woods jettisoned Roberts as a painful political payback to Bob Corbin. Corbin announced last year he wasn't running for re-election as attorney general. As a courtesy, Woods later phoned Corbin to tell him he was going to announce his candidacy for the powerful slot. That set up a September primary battle between Woods and Corbin's top assistant Steve Twist.
On the day of Woods' announcement, Corbin called a press conference to reveal that a grand jury would be investigating the Bolles case. Not surprisingly, the grand-jury bombshell pushed the Woods story to the back pages of the dailies.
Like impish schoolboys, Corbin and Twist swore it was all a big coincidence. Right. Then Woods beat Twist in the primary. Paybacks, several sources agree, are a bitch.
Roberts says he doesn't know for sure if the reasons for his abrupt firing go deeper than personal animus. No one, he says, has told him one way or the other. But he has ideas. He lists several possible factors, including the tight relationship between Woods and several members of Phoenix's defense bar--most prominently, Larry Debus and former Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Derickson.
"Derickson was extremely pissed that we mentioned him in the recent complaint against Max Dunlap and Jimmy Robison," Roberts says. "I'm not saying that he asked Grant to let me go, but study the complaint and you can draw your own conclusions."
Woods finds Roberts' version of events ludicrous, saying that Derickson and Debus made no attempt to sway him in his decision to fire Roberts.
The Attorney General's Office on December 19 filed the "complaint" against Dunlap and Robison. It accuses Dunlap of first-degree murder and both men of conspiring to obstruct an investigation, of influencing a witness, and of bribery. (Robison was charged with murdering Bolles last year in a separate complaint.)
Part of the complaint alleges Dunlap handed over $15,000 in cash to his lawyer, John Savoy, over a two-year period from May 1977 to September 1979. (Savoy has been charged with several felonies for allegedly lying to the Bolles grand jury.) Savoy in turn gave the cash to Derickson--Robison's lawyer at the time--and Derickson turned it over to Robison's longtime live-in girlfriend Bette Gleason.