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.

Henze's examination reached its climax when he asked Roberts if it were true that he had visited La Costa, near San Diego, in 1980, and while there, that he admitted to a man named Robert Sprouse that he, Neal Roberts, was responsible for the murder of Bolles.

Roberts' face did not betray any emotion. But he did raise his left hand to his face. This was the same gesture he employed every time previously that Henze asked him a question about his complicity in the crime.

"As multifarious as that question is," Roberts said, "I deny all of it." Henze smiled at the two-dollar word, which had gone right over the jury's head and sent reporters scurrying to their dictionaries.

"In order to get past the 'multifarious,' let me break it down to simple questions," Henze said. "Do you deny making a statement about your part in the murder?"
Warren Granville, the assistant attorney general battling Henze, rose and asked for a conference with Judge Hall.

For several minutes, Granville, Henze and the judge conferred. As they whispered, Roberts stood up, supported by his walker. Roberts bit his lip, and, unconsciously, he kept lifting his left foot up and down like an old minstrel man tapping out a tune.

This was a crucial moment for Roberts, and he knew it, because he was, after all, a trained lawyer. He was aware of Henze's courtroom skills. Against Henze, he was like a high school basketball star trying to guard Charles Barkley. Adding to Roberts' nervousness was the fact that he didn't know how many witnesses Henze could put on the stand to contradict his testimony.

The 15 jurors--including three alternates--were seated to Roberts' left. He never dared to look at them, even though that is a recommended tactic for witnesses trying to convince a jury they are telling the truth. If he had looked at them, Roberts would have seen they were all leaning forward in their chairs, listening to his every word.

Henze was on his feet with a pen in his right hand, standing behind a lectern in the center of the courtroom. For some reason, he looked like a barrister out of Charles Dickens. By now, Roberts was walking back and forth behind the witness chair on his walker. He could have stepped straight from the pages of Dickens, too.

"Here's a new area," Henze said, his voice rising. "It was you, wasn't it, who actually introduced Adamson to Dunlap at the Ivanhoe Bar? And wasn't it you who told Adamson to sit on Dunlap's porch until he got paid for the bombing?"
There have been many who predicted Roberts would be an inept witness because of his years of excessive drinking.

Also, lawyers are notoriously poor witnesses. They always end up saying too much. Roberts turned out to be an excellent witness--on his own behalf. His strategy was faultless. He kept his answers curt and to the point. He never offered anything he wasn't asked about.

"I can't recall," he said over and over. "I'm afraid I don't remember. After all, it's been 17 years."
Perfect. Here's a guy who would have been a great mob lawyer.
The only way Roberts could get himself into trouble was by being caught in a lie. And not being able to remember is a classic defense against any perjury charge. Roberts may still be the key to the case. But now we'll never know.

He remains a sort of giant black widow spider who has spun a huge, silken web in which every other figure in this classic case has somehow become entangled. Only Roberts is free to move about, but even he requires his walker to lean upon.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick