An ordinary guy, an extraordinary story

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As sometimes happens, one three-hour episode in a person’s life can define him for the next 50 years.

That is the case for Utah delivery man and gas station owner Melvin Dummar, who died Sunday in Southern Nevada at 74.

History buffs and moviegoers instantly recognize the name of the man who claimed in 1967 to have found a bruised and nearly unconscious man lying some yards off Highway 95, just walking distance from a brothel in Beatty, Nevada. That is because the man Dummar rescued was Howard Hughes. Melvin says he drove Hughes to the Sands Hotel and gave him a quarter for a phone call. Nearly a decade later, that episode received international attention.

As Melvin tearfully told investigative reporter George Knapp and me in 2006, when we drove him to the precise location where he found Hughes in the early stages of hypothermia, his decision to pick the man up and transport him back to Las Vegas totally transformed his life. At different times over the years it made him the butt of national jokes, even from Johnny Carson, but later, when a purported will from Hughes was discovered at the headquarters of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City, naming Melvin as a 1-16th beneficiary of his estate, the story endeared him to the average person who dreams of winning Megabucks or the Publisher’s Clearing House grand prize.

We had contacted Dummar because we were filming a television pilot, True Vegas, and one episode focused on Hughes’ four-year residency at the Desert Inn, from 1966-70. Knapp had interviewed Melvin for an earlier news segment and found his strange tale credible, so we decided to dive deeper into his account.

After interviewing Melvin at length, and watching his emotional reaction to visiting the remote site where he found Hughes, George and I both came away convinced that his story was true. Of course, none of these details became known to the public until several years later, when a will purportedly written by Hughes was delivered to the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake.

In the document, Melvin Dumar [sic] was to receive 1-16th of the billionaire’s estate. That would have amounted to around $500 million, a pretty fair hunk of change back then. Some trial experts claim the handwriting in the will was Hughes’. Other experts disputed that.

When the story of the will grabbed the world’s attention, screenwriter Bo Goldman was commissioned to write a script about the strange meeting, based in large part on Melvin’s recounting of it. The eventual movie, Melvin and Howard, was nominated for several Academy Awards and won an Oscar for Goldman for Best Original Screenplay. Melvin was given a small role in the film, and he pulled it off smoothly.

A 1980 Clark County court ruling negated the authenticity of the will, which made Melvin the butt of even more ribbing. I have no opinion on whether what was called the Mormon Will was authentic or not, but I remain convinced that Melvin picked up Hughes and essentially saved his life that night.

A distinguished retired FBI agent, Gary Magnesen, spent hundreds of hours with Dummar and wrote two books validating his account of everything. A respected Las Vegas businessman, Robert Deiro, who had never met Dummar, told us in a separate interview, that he had flown Howard Hughes to Beatty on several occasions in the late 1960s – when he supposedly never left his room at the Desert Inn – and that the billionaire was a close personal friend of Beverly Harrell, the owner of the Cottontail Ranch brothel.

Deiro even confirmed the date of one of those flights as the exact date that Melvin had found Hughes. So many different facts lined up between Dummar and Deiro that we became convinced Melvin hadn’t concocted the story.

Melvin and his wife Bonnie stayed in touch with both George Knapp and me through the years, never asking for more than simple friendship. Dummar’s feeling about the court’s decision over the will was a simple case of his being “out-lawyered” by the high-priced suits on retainer from the Hughes family estate. It was akin to Peewee Herman entering the ring with Mike Tyson. In betting parlance, if you were an oddsmaker you couldn’t put a number on it.

While Melvin’s legacy was etched in stone through that brief encounter all those years ago, he should also be remembered as a good family man and a hard worker. What actually happened between him and the injured man he rescued all those years is known only to them, and they are both gone.

But the story belongs to the ages.

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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