The scene after Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was fatally injured when a bomb went off in his car in 1976.
You don't have to scrape too far beneath the veneer of "a clean, new, well-run city" to understand that Phoenix is perhaps one of America's more corrupt, crime-run cities. It doesn't get a great city in exchange for its corruption, as with Chicago. And being crime-run isn't the same as being crime-ridden, so whatever statistics the boosters pull out to show community safety are really beside the point.
It's long been this way. When I was a child, Phoenicians sniffed that Tucson was the Mafia town, with Joe Bonanno, Pete Licavoli Sr. and company. In reality, of course, Phoenix had more mobsters per capita than New York City. I grew up just a few blocks from the house where, in 1958, Gus Greenbaum and his wife had their throats slit in retaliation for Gus' skimming from the tills in Vegas (and, local lore has it, the hitmen then ate the steaks the Greenbaums had just cooked). Phoenix was full of bars (Rocky's Hideaway, the old Blue Grotto, Ivanhoe, the Clown's Den, etc.) frequented by made men and the wanna-bes.
This was not the result, as some would have it, of "the Wild West atmosphere." Rather, it was the interface between a city growing too fast with few rules or institutional checks and the migration of Midwestern gangsters to exploit the situation (or, later, to be relocated by the feds). And an establishment willing to look the other way, or join in the "business." A culture of fraud built on successive real-estate booms, or scandals such as the collapse of Arizona Savings in the early 1960s, also made the city a magnet for criminals. The most prominent figure in this was Ned Warren (aka Nathan Waxman), the Kingpin of Arizona Land Fraud. He figured in the Bolles bombing.
But the roots of organized crime in Phoenix run much deeper. Al Capone was a frequent visitor at the Westward Ho and the Chicago Outfit controlled liquor during Prohibition. In 1928, the Outfit chose Phoenix as the hub of its proprietary, and illegal, betting wire, the Trans-America Publishing and News Service. Greenbaum was sent to run it. The wire service gained a powerful local ally in land baron and rancher Kemper Marley (the most prominent figure in the Bolles bombing, although he was never charged). After booze was legalized, Marley became the city's largest liquor wholesaler — and patron of the Hensley clan, which went legit by the time Cindy Hensley married John McCain. A Hensley retainer in Jim Hensley's trouble with the feds was a young lawyer named William Rehnquist, future Chief Justice of the United States.
Thus, the midcentury mobs in Phoenix included both Italian and Jewish gangsters. Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles produced a series about the latter, "The Menace Within" in 1970 and "The Newcomers" in 1973. If the city had a godfather, he was Joseph "Papa Joe" Tocco, who also went by the nickname Buddy. His brother was Albert Tocco, a capo of the Chicago Heights mob. But even Papa Joe didn't wield total power. Phoenix was considered open, neutral territory by the Mafia. No family controlled it. In addition to the profits to be had, Phoenix offered resorts and golf for the made men. Much of the Phoenix power structure, including the Goldwater and Rosenzweig brothers and Del Webb, were friendly with organized crime.
Much of America first discovered this nasty reality after the bombing murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles in 1976. A national team of investigative reporters gathered at the Adams Hotel downtown and spent months digging into the reality of sunny paradise.
The resulting stories showed Arizona, and especially Phoenix, as a hotbed of mobsters, illegal activities, rampant land fraud, vile exploitation of illegal immigrants and the corruption of judges and other officials. Much of this was not new to Arizonans who paid attention. Despite the same boosterism as today, Gene Pulliam's Republic also did real investigative reporting, especially with Bolles and the late Al Sitter. Series had documented growing mob influence from back east. Stories had real power, sending people to jail, shattering schemes. Nor were Phoenicians unaware of the potential for violence. A witness against the mob had been bombed in Tempe a year before the Bolles attack.
When it came time to run the Arizona Project, however, the Republic balked (Pulliam was dead by this time; New Times ran it, making its reputation). Was the series spiked because of legal or journalistic concerns, or because stories raised questions about some of the most powerful people in the state, including Bob Goldwater -- owner with the Martori family of the Goldmar land and citrus empire -- and even Barry himself?
Whether or not the Goldwaters were mobbed up is an unanswered question for historians. Barry was attracted to celebrity, including the dark side. As for Bob, the borderline in Phoenix business between the mobsters and the legitimate was so porous that telling the two apart was difficult. Phoenix city father Harry Rosenzweig was another question mark: mobbed up, or just close to mobsters? Such was the Phoenix of the 1950s through the 1970s.
For the record, I don't know who killed Bolles, beyond the obvious front-line assassin John Harvey Adamson. On the scene, Bolles, in agony, said, "They finally got me...the Mafia, Emprise (owned of dog racetracks)...find Adamson." The revenge theory implicating Marley has merit (Bolles' reporting had cost Marley a post on the state racing commission). So, too, does the hypothesis of a renegade from the seedy dog-racing industry, seeking revenge. How high did the conspiracy go? At the time, more than one old Phoenician said, "They never would have done this if old man Pulliam were still alive." It's also true that the investigation into Bolles' death was horribly botched and police records were destroyed or permanently misplaced. I have cop friends who still won't talk about it with me.
Phoenix was a land-fraud capital. Warren and Howard Neal Woodall were among the more notable swindlers who ran schemes selling worthless desert (or nothing) to gullible easterners. Woodall went on to testify against an alleged accomplice in the Bolles killing. He also sang for the cops about the murder of an accountant close to Warren. There's much more to learn about this era.
Underworld Phoenix changed in the 1980s. In some ways, they went legit. For example, Goldmar's Arrowhead Ranch, where the Investigative Reporters and Editors team documented horrendous conditions for migrant workers, became one of the first "master planned communities." The old Mafia was being snuffed out by RICO and other fed pressure. For example, Papa Joe died in federal prison in 1995 after being convicted nine years earlier on loan-sharking and other charges.
But a new group of sharpies, exemplified by Charles H Keating Jr., arrived. Unlike the old gangsters, they usually pushed right up to the limits of the law. They continued the process of co-opting the local establishment, although most of the old guard had died off. The Phoenix 40 group of powerful executives promised reform, and there was some. But a new old-boy network emerged and who needed land fraud when you could make a killing from building tract houses across 1,500 square miles of the Sonoran Desert with virtually no restraints? Which is not to say that the old rackets disappeared. They gradually were taken over by new owners.
Today local drugs and prostitution are the province of the hundreds of gangs of all ethnicities that operate throughout -- and I mean throughout -- metropolitan Phoenix. Gambling has largely become legit. The metro area is also a major staging ground in the international illicit drug world, where the operators are as sophisticated as any multinational and armed with the best technology in the world. It is the nation's capital for the human smuggling trade. The consequences of all these activities are magnified because of the limited local economy, segregation, lack of community and weak institutions.
The federal witness protection relos and general mob affinity for Phoenix continue, sometimes with disastrous consequences. In the late 1990s, Gambino goombah "Sammy the Bull" Gravano set up a drug trafficking operation with some Gilbert white supremacist teenagers. The usual Arizona Laff Riot ensued, with the media and residents expressing shock, shock, that crime could be going on in their white suburb, with affluent white kids. Did anyone think Sammy would buy a house in Willo? Of course not. The promise of suburban Phoenix is anonymity and the annihilation of community. The perps have wheels; thus, much lurid crime happens in the 'burbs and the media are always shocked. Ironically, suburbia was supposed to promote safety. In reality, it merely promotes isolation and criminal opportunity. Sammy the Bull and the 9/11 hijacker would never have chosen to live in a historic district, a real neighborhood with front porches and people who know each other.
A big difference from the past is that the local establishment -- especially the law -- isn't as compromised. Attorney General Terry Goddard has been a scourge of the smugglers and meth dealers. The problems arise more from the malpractice and media-chasing of The Badged Ego (aka Joe Arpaio), the neglect of some of the county justice courts, and, especially, the scattering of real community leadership. The people with the most power and means to make a difference live behind walls in Paradise Valley and north Scottsdale. They can write off the present underworld as "Maryvale," brown people and that's that. At least the old guard wasn't afraid to socialize with the criminals of their day.
Read more about Phoenix's history — and live to tell about it — in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.