I’ll always remember that spring day 14 years ago when former Fallon resident Melvin Dummar told me of his dramatic Nevada desert rescue of the world-famous eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes which, according to Dummar, ultimately led to Hughes bequeathing him one sixteenth or approximately $150 million of his fortune.
My two-hour, April 8, 2004, interview with Dummar, who had lived for several years in Fallon with his family as a child following his birth in Utah and died of cancer 10 days ago in Pahrump at 74, was conducted in the parking lot of a Hawthorne motel and appeared along with a photo I took of him and his truck in this newspaper the following day. The Associated Press, of which we were a member, published my story word-for-word under my byline as well as the photograph, and they ran in countless newspapers in the U.S. and abroad.
For years, Dummar had shunned the press, stating it was “unfair” to him and “out to get me and mock me” because of his statements about his alleged rescue of Hughes. But after locating his relatives in Gabbs and convincing them I would be fair and non-judgmental with Dummar, they contacted Dummar at his home in western Utah, told him they believed me and Dummar telephoned me, agreeing to meet me in Hawthorne, a regular stop on his monthly route where he sold meat, fish, pies and ice cream from the refrigerated truck he drove through Utah and Nevada.
During my interview with Dummar, he insisted that 37 years earlier, in 1967, “I had stopped along Highway 95, about 230 miles south of Fallon, to relieve myself while driving to Las Vegas to find my wife who had run off with another fellow when I discovered a disheveled man lying in a ditch off the highway.
“The man was lying in the dirt, was about six feet tall and was wearing a shirt and baggy pants and tennis shoes. He was dirty, had long hair that came to his waist and looked like he hadn’t shaved in a long time. He asked me to drive him to Las Vegas, and since I was going there anyway, I put him in my Chevy and he sort of laid down on the seat next to me.
“When we got to Vegas, he asked me to drop him off at the rear of he Sands Hotel and also asked if I had any spare change, as he said he was broke. I gave him all the change I had. He then asked my name, and I told him. He said his name was Howard Hughes. I dropped him off at the hotel and have never seen him or communicated with him ever since,” Dummar told me.
Following Howard Hughes’ death in 1976, his handwritten so-called “Mormon Will” that gave one-sixteenth of his fortune to Dummar mysteriously appeared at Salt Lake City’s Latter-day Saints headquarters, immediately casting suspicion upon Dummar for writing it himself. Two Nevada juries and an appeals judge subsequently ruled the Mormon Will was a fake, written by Dummar. “As God is my witness, I am not a liar. Mr. Hughes wrote that will and I am entitled to the money he left me. The courts were rigged against me. Many responsible people still believe me, and justice someday will prevail,” Dummar told me that early spring day 14 years ago in the Hawthorne motel parking lot.
When Dummar died in Pahrump on Dec. 9, he left his second wife and assorted children, stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Although he received not a cent from Hughes, he achieved temporary fame when he appeared in a cameo role in the Oscar-winning 1980 motion picture “Melvin and Howard” that starred Jason Robards as Hughes and Paul Le Mat as Dummar. Dummar also made guest appearances on the television shows “The Will,” “Late Night With David Letterman,” and “Let’s Make a Deal.”
Hughes, who died of kidney failure at the age of 72 in 1976 while aboard a private jet flying from Acapulco, Mexico to Houston, where he was to undergo treatment at Methodist Hospital, also was the subject of several articles I wrote for this newspaper in 2007 after learning that the town fathers of Tonopah were discussing a plan to turn the motel where Hughes had secretly married film actress Jean Peters in January 1957, into a Howard Hughes Museum.
Not wanting the press to learn about his impending marriage to Peters, who would become the third of his three wives, Hughes, the then-president of Trans World Airlines, ordered that one of his passenger aircraft fly him, Peters and two dozen of their friends from Burbank Airport in Southern California to the Tonopah airfield. From there, they were driven to the L and L Motel in downtown Tonopah and escorted to the manager’s second floor living room. The local justice of the peace was awaiting their arrival, and married them in a five-minute ceremony. Hughes was married under the name G.A. Johnson and Peters under the name Marian Evans. The wedding party then flew back to Burbank. The Los Angeles Examiner, where I worked as a reporter in the late 1950s and early 1960s, soon got the scoop on the secret marriage and gave it massive page one treatment.
Peters was well known, having starred in such films as “Pickup on South Street,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Apache,” “Broken Arrow,” “Captain From Castile,” “Viva Zapata” and “A Man Called Peter.” She died in Carlsbad, Calif., in October 2000, two days before her 74th birthday.
As for the plans to turn Tonopah’s L and L Motel into the Howard Hughes Museum: They got nowhere. Money couldn’t be raised and the aging, dilapidated motel was eventually torn down and replaced by a parking lot.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.