In his 32 years of reporting for the Arizona Daily Star, Ernie Heltsley patrolled state and federal courts and the Arizona Legislature. He monitored bankruptcies and rises and collapses in real estate like no other reporter. He served as the local man on the biggest series ever produced when top journalists from around the country, led by bigger-than-life editor Bob Greene of Newsday, responded to the murder of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles in 1976. His dogged sourcing meant that he was hardly in the office. Colleague Joe Burchell worked in the Star's downtown office near Heltsley's desk for two years before seeing Heltsley. So what does a reporter, who retired in 1999, do to stay busy? Easy. Return to a lifelong dream of writing a book on his family and its roots. A Stroll Through Egypt and Paradise is available at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd.
Where were you when you learned that Bolles, after meeting a source at a downtown Phoenix hotel, had been the victim of a car bombing?
I was on vacation in San Antonio. Here's a coincidence: Bruce Babbitt was the attorney general then, and he happened to be in San Antonio, too. I had heard about the bombing on the news, but it was very brief, very few details. The next day, I ran into Babbitt, face to face. I was hoping he could tell me what happened. But he didn't provide much information.
You knew Bolles.
Yes. I covered the Legislature for two sessions in 1973 and 1974. He was there. He was outstanding.
Despite the tragedy, was the Arizona Project exciting for you as a reporter?
Oh yeah, very exciting. I was a little disappointed that I didn't go to Phoenix with the rest of the group. The Star sent (the late) John Rawlinson and Alex Drehsler. But I had gratitude that (managing editor) Frank Johnson let me work on it, covering the Tucson angles and connections. I went down to Amado and outside the Cow Palace saw a little guy who looked like Kemper Marley (the Phoenix investor who was implicated, but never prosecuted for the Bolles murder). He wouldn't say anything, but he didn't deny he was Kemper Marley. Later, I had to testify in court that I had seen him and attempted to question him.
Do you think that type of intensive investigative reporting is lost?
The papers do some good things that we didn't do back then. But today, I'm afraid that the Arizona Project would be looked at as newspaper folly. Things have changed. Privacy rights have increased. And it may have trampled on many privacy rights. There have been tougher rulings on privacy rights. I mean, it was all factual, but I'm afraid journalism today, both electronic and print, is not nearly as aggressive. The media doesn't want to be taken to court. They don't want the costs of defense.
You became pretty familiar with courts and trials, including those to which (Mafia) was summoned.
I was covering Superior Court when they caught those two kids Dunbar and Stevens for tossing dynamite in Joe Bonanno's backyard. Rawlinson was the Mafia reporter, and I sat right next to him during the hearing. Judge (William) Frey was pressing David Hale (the FBI agent suspected of enlisting Dunbar and Stevens in what was either an agency black-bag operation or a rogue agent flying off on his own). Tom Chandler, the lawyer, finally got Frey to back down. I went back to the office and the editors told me, not John, to write the story.
You crossed paths with the Bonanno family again.
Yes, when Joe served time in prison and was being released and then when his book, Man of Honor, came out in the early 1980s.
Rudy Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for southern New York, flew out with bravado to force Joe to testify about what was in the book, but Joe didn't give anything.bravado to force Joe to testify about what was in the book, but Joe didn't give anything.
It was fun and exciting. I was very anxious to learn about the Mafia, and thought that when I retired, I would write a book about it. But I won't.
You paid your respects when Joe Bonanno died two years ago at age 97.
Yes. I spoke to (son) Bill, and he seemed a little agitated. They had been talking, I think, to Ric Volante (a Heltsley protégé at the Star), and I think they thought I was still reporting.
What's next besides a little golf?
I've been thinking about a book on a land (scam) guy, Howard Inches, who sold sites next to Kino Springs south of Green Valley. I have a huge scrapbook of it from one of his victims. He was prosecuted here, but never convicted. He was shot and killed in some bar on an island south of Miami. If I do something more,that will be it.