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BRIGHAM CITY - It's Melvin Dummar's story, and he's glued to it.
The former Willard gas station operator - who forever will be tied to Howard Hughes through the so-called Mormon Will - still insists he picked up the billionaire recluse along a lonely Nevada road and saved his life on a frigid December night in 1967.
Now, nearly four decades later, new evidence suggests Dummar was telling the truth.
"I pulled off on a dirt road to relieve myself," he recalls during a recent interview at his quiet home outside Brigham City. "My first thought was that I'd found a dead body."
But the man was still alive and, according to Dummar, he eventually identified himself as Howard Hughes. Years later, a handwritten will turned up in Utah that left a big chunk of Hughes' fortune to Dummar and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Far from that energetic young guy with sideburns who hoped to break into country-western music, Dummar, now 61, wears a special sleeve on his right arm to help his circulation. His trademark locks have thinned, too, but he still carries the shiny-eyed exuberance of someone on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Dummar was branded a scammer in 1976 after a Las Vegas jury labeled as bogus the document that left him one-sixteenth of Hughes' billions - an amount estimated to be in excess of $150 million.
Johnny Carson and grocery-store tabloids made regular fodder of Dummar and his wild tale of an old disheveled man who claimed to be Howard Hughes.
"You've just got to learn to turn the other cheek," Dummar sighs.
"Yeah, but we're running out of cheeks," quips Bonnie, his wife of 32 years.
Hughes and his will are the worst things ever to happen, she says with measured stoicism of the nasty media whirlwind and bare-knuckled legal fight over the inheritance.
"It was like someone sucked the life out of us," she explains. "We were in limbo for 20 years."
Connecting flight: In a new book titled The Investigation, retired FBI agent Gary Magnesen enumerates evidence turned up in his own two-year probe that shores up Dummar's rendition. Among the new findings is the recollection of a Hughes employee who says he flew his famously womanizing boss to a brothel near Nevada's remote Lida Junction over the Christmas holidays in 1967.
The Cottontail Ranch, as it was called, is seven miles north on U.S. 95 from where Dummar says he came across a man face down on a dirt road. Once in the warmth of the '66 Chevy Caprice, the rumpled stranger regained consciousness and asked Dummar to drive him 160 miles to Las Vegas. Before departing at the back door of the Dunes Hotel, the man said he would be forever indebted.
About 35 years later, when Magnesen came calling, Dummar was riddled with cancer and preparing for a bone-marrow transplant - his last shot at surviving lymphoma.
"He was weak and very sick," Magnesen remembers. "Here was a guy who had nothing to gain and is at death's door and is willing to open up this painful experience again."
Magnesen, who spent a career fighting organized crime in Las Vegas, studied the Clark County, Nev., court record and set out to find people tied to the inheritance trial.
"I found evidence of perjury and coercion of witnesses," he says. "And there had been destruction of evidence."
Magnesen even placed ads in Nevada newspapers asking anyone with knowledge of Hughes to contact him.
That led G. Robert Deiro, now a successful Las Vegas businessman, to report his association with the famous aviator. As a young employee of Hughes Tool Co. in 1967, Deiro operated the old Thunderbird Airport in Las Vegas.
Aides testified during the probate trial that the billionaire hermit never left his living quarters on the top floor of the Desert Inn during that period. But Deiro says he had secretly flown Hughes to various locations around Nevada in the late '60s.
"He was very secretive," Deiro recounts in a Salt Lake Tribune interview. "He wanted female companionship and knew I flew people to whorehouses all over Nevada."
On the night of Dec. 29 - hours before Dummar came across the mysterious wanderer - Deiro flew his boss to the Cottontail Ranch to visit Sunny, Hughes' favorite prostitute. She was known for a diamond-studded tooth, among other attributes. Waiting for Hughes at the brothel, Deiro had several drinks, passed out and was not awakened until 5 a.m.
"When I asked where my friend was, they said he had left," Deiro remembers. "I looked around, but he was gone. I thought, 'Oh sh--.' "
Nothing ever came of it, though, because Hughes didn't turn up missing. Deiro even got promoted and eventually ran Hughes' California-based Golden West Airlines. Unfortunately for Dummar, Deiro did not testify at the probate trial.
Another Hughes confidant, LaVane Forsythe, refused to testify. That left Dummar to explain why he had lied about delivering the will April 27, 1976 - three weeks after Hughes' death - to the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.
In a deposition, however, Forsythe stated that in 1972 Hughes handed him the document identified as the so-called Mormon Will. After the billionaire's death April 5, 1976, Forsythe was instructed to deliver it to Dummar in Willard, just south of Brigham City.
"I almost threw it away," recalls Dummar of the letter on yellow lined paper left by a stranger. "It terrified me. I didn't know what to do."
'Will' of misfortune: Following instructions on the envelope, Dummar delivered the will to the LDS Church but later told reporters he had no knowledge of it.
Investigators eventually found Dummar's fingerprint on the envelope, giving attorneys for Hughes' relatives the opening they needed to trash his credibility during the 1977 trial.
"I wish I hadn't lied about that," Dummar now says. "But I thought, if this is a joke, I don't want to have anything to do with it."
Although the will was tagged a fake, Magnesen argues that neither Melvin nor Bonnie could have forged it.
How would they know about the institutions that Hughes named in the will? Magnesen asks. How would they know to name Hughes CEO William Lummis and Hughes' former wives in the will? How would they know about Hughes' use of yellow lined paper? How could they have used the same brand of pen and ink that Hughes was known to use?
When the hubbub subsided, the Dummars were broke. The newly constructed Interstate 15 bypassed Willard, forcing them to give up the gas station. But their notoriety kept them from finding other employment.
"People would say, 'You're kidding. You're going to get all that money. We don't want to train you,' " Dummar explains. "On the other hand, people would say, 'We don't want a fraud and a cheat around here.' So I was a loser either way."
Finally, in 1980, Bonnie landed a job at Mervyn's department store in Ogden, where she has worked for 25 years. Melvin tried his hand at a string of jobs from delivering beer to selling liquidated furniture. These days, he owns and operates a small meat company called Dummar Enterprises that delivers beef to small communities in rural Nevada.
It's a one-man show and Dummar spends long days crisscrossing Nevada's open expanses, listening to the radio and singing to himself.
Some things just don't change.
Ode to Howard: The Mormon Will defined their lives. Reminiscing about it brings smiles and tears.
New evidence or not, Dummar's chance for a piece of Hughes' estate is long gone.
"The word vindication is almost a slap in the face," he says. "It's like, we ripped you off for $150 million, and there's nothing you can do about it. Ha-ha."
But there were high points along the way. Bonnie pulls out a scrapbook that reflects the good times, including the 1980 motion picture "Melvin and Howard" that won two Academy Awards.
Dummar got a cameo role in the movie as the food-counter guy at a bus depot. And his notoriety provided a short-lived singing career. He made appearances on several national TV programs. And, for two weeks in the early '80s, he performed nightly guitar-strumming shows at Reno's Sahara Club, where he crooned his original songs.
Bonnie still likes to queue up recordings of her husband during the period just after the Las Vegas jury stripped him of any right to the Hughes fortune.
Lyrics in a piece titled "Thank You, Howard" stake out the irony of their bad fortune:
All you left me was frustration, and I'll never live it down
Oh, Howard, I wish you were around.
But Dummar isn't one to cry in his milk. "You've got to keep on living," he likes to say.
That's pretty much summed up by the chorus of another of his original tunes called "All American Dreamer":
Some say I'll never make it. But one day I will score.
Some say I've lost the battle. But I don't think I've lost the war.
The "Mormon Will"
The text of the handwritten document known as the "Mormon Will":
Last Will and Testament
I, Howard R. Hughes, being of sound mind and disposing mind and memory, not acting under duress, fraud or the undue influence of any person whomever, and being a resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, declare that this is to be my last will and revolt [sic] all other wills previously made by me -
After my death, my estate is to be devided [sic] as follows -
First: one-forth [sic] of all my assets to go to Hughes Medical Institute of Miami -
Second: one-eight [sic] of assets to be devided [sic] among the University of Texas - Rice Institute of Technology of Houston - the University of Nevada - and the University of Calif.
Third: one-sixteenth to Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - David O. McKay - Pre.
Forth [sic]: one-sixteenth to establish a home for orphan cildren [sic] -
Fifth: one-sixteenth of assets to go to Boy Scouts of America.
Sixth: one-sixteenth to be devided [sic] among Jean Peters of Los Angeles and Ella Rice of Houston -
Seventh: one-sixteenth of assets to William R. Loomis [sic] of Houston, Texas -
Eighth: one-sixteenth to go to Melvin DuMar [sic] of Gabbs, Nevada -
Ninth: one-sixteenth to be devided [sic] among my personal aides at the time of my death -
Tenth: one-sixteenth to be used as school scholarship fund for entire country - the spruce goose is to be given to the City of Long Beach, Calif.
The remainder of my estate is to be devided [sic] among the key men of the company's [sic] I own at the time of my death.
I appoint Noah Dietrich as the executer[sic] of this will -
Signed the 19 [sic] day of March 1968
Howard R. Hughes
Melvin Dummar, today
Did you hear the one . . . ?
Howard Hughes' supposed "Mormon Will" inspired plenty of punch lines. Here is an old joke about a fictitious meeting between then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball and the billionaire businessman:
Hughes: President Kimball, I really admire your church and what it stands for. Is there any way I can get to heaven without being baptized?
Kimball: Well, Howard, where there is a will, there is a way.