Bolles grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and attended Teaneck High School, graduating in the class of 1946. He pursued a newspaper career, in the footsteps of his father (chief of the Associated Press bureau in New Jersey) and grandfather. He graduated from Beloit College with a degree in government, where he was editor of the campus newspaper, and received a President's Award for personal achievement. After a stint in the United States Army in the Korean War assigned to an anti-aircraft unit, he joined the Associated Press as a sports editor and rewriter in New York, New Jersey and Kentucky.
In 1962 he was hired by the Arizona Republic newspaper, published at the time by Eugene C. Pulliam, where he quickly found a spot on the investigative beat and gained a reputation for dogged reporting of influence peddling, bribery, and land swindles. Former colleagues say he seemed to grow disillusioned about his job in late 1975 and early 1976, and that he had requested to be taken off the investigative beat, moving to coverage of Phoenix City Hall and then the state Legislature.
Two marriages produced five children, four from the first and one from the second.
Bolles was the brother of Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the best-selling job-hunting book, What Color is Your Parachute? He shares a grandfather, Stephen Bolles, with humanist theoretician Edmund Blair Bolles. His daughter, Frances Bolles Haynes, has co-authored four books on job hunting.
On June 2, 1976, Bolles left behind a short note in his office typewriter explaining he would meet with an informant, then go to a luncheon meeting, and be back about 1:30 p.m. He was responsible for covering a routine hearing at the State Capitol, and planned to attend a movie with second wife Rosalie Kasse that night in celebration of their eighth wedding anniversary. The source promised information on a land deal involving top state politicians and possibly the mob. A wait of several minutes in the lobby of the Hotel Clarendon (now known as the Clarendon Hotel) was concluded with a call for Bolles himself to the front desk, where the conversation lasted no more than two minutes. Bolles then exited the hotel, his car in the adjacent parking lot just south of the hotel on Fourth Avenue.
Apparently, Bolles started the car, even moving a few feet, before a remote-controlled bomb consisting of six sticks of dynamite taped to the underside of the car beneath the driver's seat was detonated; the explosion shattered his lower body, opened the driver's door, and left him mortally wounded while half outside the vehicle. Both legs and one arm were amputated over a ten day stay in St. Joseph's Hospital; the eleventh day was the reporter's last. However, his last words after being found in the parking lot the day of the bombing were: "They finally got me. The Mafia. Emprise. Find John [Harvey Adamson]."
The exact motive for the crime remains a mystery, but many speculate the Mafia holds responsibility, as a large concentration of Bolles' work involved organized crime, even going as far as to run a story naming over 200 known mafia members operating in the state of Arizona. Some suspected that Kemper Marley, a man who made millions in the liquor distribution business in Arizona in a partnership with Cindy McCain's father and fraternal uncle, was behind the Bolles murder, but Phoenix police could find no evidence linking him with the crime, and he continued conducting business in Arizona until meeting his own death, cancer-related, on June 25, 1990 in La Jolla, California.
The S.F. Examiner on October 20, 1976, reported that Maricopa County Dist. Atty. Donald Harris "said a conspiracy by 'the country club set' was more likely than Mafia involvement in the June 2 bombing that fatally wounded Bolles. ... The mob doesn't kill cops and reporters. This is not a Mafia case." The examiner article stated "Bolles, 47, frequently wrote about land fraud. [His stories] eventually resulted in passage of an emergency measure legislative bill opening 'blind trusts' to public scrutiny." According to trial testimony, Adamson had gone to San Diego with a girlfriend and purchased the electronics for two bombs. Police searching his apartment later found the electronics for one bomb. Also according to trial testimony, Adamson early on June 2 went to the Arizona Republic employees' parking area and asked the guard which car belonged to Bolles.
The incident sparked an investigation in the months that followed, known as the Arizona Project, with Robert W. Greene assuming the head and drawing nearly 40 reporters and editors from 23 newspapers including The Milwaukee Journal and Newsday.
John Harvey Adamson pleaded guilty in 1977 to second-degree murder for building and planting the bomb that killed Bolles. Adamson accused Phoenix contractor Max Dunlap, an associate of Kemper Marley, of ordering the hit, and Chandler plumber James Robison of triggering the bomb. Adamson testified against Dunlap and Robison, who were convicted of first-degree murder in the same year, but whose convictions were overturned in 1978. When Adamson refused to testify again, Adamson was charged and convicted of first-degree murder in 1980 and sentenced to death, which was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court. In 1989, Robison was re-charged, and re-tried and acquitted in 1993, but pleaded guilty to a charge of soliciting an act of criminal violence against Adamson. In 1990, Dunlap was re-charged when Adamson agreed to testify again, and was found guilty of first-degree murder.
Max Dunlap died in an Arizona prison on July 21, 2009.
Among the last words that Bolles mentioned was Emprise. Emprise (later called Sportservice and now called Delaware North Companies) was a privately owned company that operated various dog and horse racing tracks and is a major food vendor for sports arenas. In 1972, the House Select Committee on Crime held hearings concerning Emprise’s connections with organized crime figures. Around this time, Emprise and six individuals were convicted of concealing ownership of the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. As a result of the conviction, Emprise's dog racing operations in Arizona were placed under the legal authority of a trustee appointed by the Arizona State Racing Commission. Bolles was investigating Emprise at the time of his death. However, no connection between Emprise and his death was discovered.
The Newseum, a $400 million interactive museum of news and journalism located in Washington, D.C., features Bolles' 1976 Datsun 710, which had sat for 28 years in the Arizona Department of Public Safety's impound lot, as the centerpiece of a gallery devoted solely to the slain journalist.
- Conscience-in-Media Award, from the American Society of Journalists and Authors
- Arizona Press Club Newsman of the Year in 1974.
- "Don Bolles' tragic death". Michigan Daily. 1976-06-16. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
- Hensley, Tatiana (2006-05-28). "Bolles: Cautious man, dedicated journalist". Arizona Republic. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
- Staff. "New Jersey Briefs", The New York Times, June 4, 1977. Accessed September 13, 2011.
- Associated Press (1980-02-26). "Pair win reversal of murder verdicts". The Spokesman Review. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
- Kelly, Charles (2006-05-28). "Reverberations felt 30 years after Don Bolles' death". Arizona Republic. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
- "Look What Louie Wrought" Sports Illustrated May 29, 1972 http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1086154/index.htm
- Ruelas, Richard (2009-07-23). "Bolles exhibit impresses detective". AZ Journal. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
- The Don Bolles Case 25 Years On
- Bolles: Cautious man, dedicated journalist - Arizona Republic profile
- Special Report: Don Bolles
- The Arizona Project
- The Death in Arizona of the Kemper Marley Machine - "Kemper Marley, a wealthy Phoenix rancher and liquor wholesaler, was Dunlap's mentor and was rumored for years to have been the person who actually ordered the hit on Don Bolles".