Thirty-one years ago Don Bolles, an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic, was fatally injured when a bomb exploded under his car outside a Phoenix hotel where he had been lured to meet a nonexistent source.  Before dying in the hospital 11 days later, minus both legs and an arm, he said the word “mafia” and named the man who later pleaded guilty to planting the remote control explosive.

Two other relatively small-time figures served long prison terms for their roles in the killing, but the powerful figure unofficially suspected as the one who ordered the hit was at the time Arizona’s wealthiest man. Possessed of a name right out of James Ellroy—Kemper Marley——this billionaire rancher, real estate tycoon and wholesale liquor distributor had rumored ties to organized crime as well as many of the public officials for sale or rent in the state through the latter half of the 20th century. Bolles’ stories about Marley led to his resignation from his recently appointed seat on the state racing commission, a fact which police and prosecutors saw as a plausible motive for revenge. But he was not charged in the case.

In fact the most conspicuous public allegation of Marley’s connection to Bolles’ death came from journalists rallied by the recently formed Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) to swarm into the state from all over and start digging into the deep background of the case.  Marley sued them for libel in 1981; a jury awarded damages of $15,000 for emotional distress.

But the extraordinary fact was the Arizona Project itself, as the IRE team called it, and its unprecedented and intensive immigration and collaboration among reporters, editors and others bent on seeing to it that Bolles’ death was not the end but the beginning of a wide-ranging expose of Arizona’s network of corruption. Swat one of us down, went the message, and stand by to deal with the hive.

The legacy of the Arizona Project is at this date mixed.  The full story from IRE’s perspective is here  (disappointingly, the archived reports on the power relationships of the “Phoenix 40” have broken links) but its work was attacked immediately by locals (like Senator Barry Goldwater) as “pack” or “vigilante” journalism; the New York Times and Washington Post declined to lend people to the effort; and Bolles’ own employer, the Arizona Republic, declined to print the reports.  A 2006 retrospective concludes that the project did not have the long-term reform effect its authors had hoped.

But meanwhile, just as there had been nothing like the Arizona Project before, there has been nothing like it since.  But that’s because, with the exception of the 1984 murder of a Chinese American writer ordered by a Taiwanese intelligence official, no one has put a hit on an American journalist on American soil since then. 

Until thrCbaileyee months ago, that is, when Chauncey Bailey, Jr., 48, was shotgun-assassinated one morning on an Oakland sidewalk on his way to work. The 37-year veteran of print and broadcast journalism was the editor-in-chief of the five-city San Francisco Bay Area Post, northern California’s largest African-American weekly. His 19-year-old confessed killer, who calmly walked away to a waiting van that day, was an employee of Your Black Muslim Bakery, which Bailey had been investigating for a major story, and which police targeted with a massive raid several days later.   

The local bakery chain, founded in 1968 and developed as a hopeful example of Black entrepreneurship and community self-help, had come on hard times since the death of its founder, Yusuf Bey, in 2003. The police raid was prompted by an official investigation into suspicions that the bakery company had become a front for a fraudulent and increasingly violent criminal enterprise, and that investigation continues.

But Bailey’s colleagues are not leaving it to the police to trace and expose the criminal forces that at least indirectly were responsible for his death.  The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has announced formation of a Chauncey Bailey Project to unite a team of more than two dozen reporters, editors, and photographers drawn from Bay Area print, broadcast and online media to continue and expand Bailey’s inquiry into what the announcement called “the past and current activities surrounding the Bey family empire, which operates the Bakery, and their activities over the past two decades.” 

The project will also draw on the resources of IRE, the Bay Area Black Journalists Association; Bay Area News Group; the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting, the Oakland-based Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the National Association of Black Journalists, New America Media, New Voices in Independent Journalism, the journalism departments at San Francisco State and San Jose State Universities, and the Graduate School of Journalism of UC Berkeley.

The project is supported by a $20,000 grant from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the national Society of Professional Journalists, to pay for records and travel expenses and stipends for student interns as well as development of a website to report the findings.  Unlike the Arizona Project this enterprise will be run by local journalists, and has the advantage of vindicating the work of a well-known media personality (Don Bolles was a relatively minor figure at the time of his death) and, above all, of focusing on an organization whose most menacing leaders are already in custody.  Before the police raid on the bakery and the arrests, Bailey’s publisher was so nervous about his planned disclosures that he held them back.