Nearly 30 years have not dimmed Houston private detective Jim Spiller’s memory of his first trip to Las Vegas.
Lawyers fighting to have the so-called Mormon will of Howard Hughes declared legal wanted Spiller’s help in making their case.
"I think the will was real," Spiller says. "There was just gobs of circumstantial evidence. People just couldn’t make up the things we discovered."
The fact that a Las Vegas jury eventually decided the will was a phony did not change his mind. Nearly three decades and a lot of hindsight later Spiller still feels the same way.
What the news media eventually came to label the "Mormon will" was a handwritten document that first came to public attention when it was discovered on a desk at Mormon Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. It left Hughes’ fortune to a gaggle of beneficiaries, including Utah gas station attendant Melvin Dummar, who would tell the world that he had discovered an injured Hughes by the side of a highway near Tonopah and drove him to the back of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Hughes supposedly identified himself to Dummar, said he didn’t have any money on him and asked Melvin for some money. After Hughes’ death, the will was delivered to Dummar and he took it to the church.
"Melvin didn’t believe the claims of the injured man he picked up, sort of rolling his eyes and saying, yeah, sure." But he gave the "old bum" some change and drove away, not thinking any more about the incident.
Hard to imagine how the future of Hughes’ Las Vegas hotels might have been affected had the "will" giving millions to such disparate interests as the Boy Scouts, Dummar and the Mormon Church, to name a few, had been declared legal.
Similar thoughts have rolled through Spiller’s mind since he concluded the 18-20 months of work that saw him heavily involved in the case through the end of the Las Vegas trial in 1978.
"Melvin was a nice guy but not the brightest bulb in the package," Spiller says. "No way could he have engineered or been part of a conspiracy to create something like this."
The document had been delivered to Dummar’s gas station by a Hughes-appointed courier who had been given the pages in a sealed envelope years before and told to deliver it to Dummar at the right time.
Spiller found the Utah farmer who had given directions to the "big guy in a dark car" who had stopped to ask directions to the Dummar station.
The man remembered the courier because, "You don’t see big guys like that wearing a suit around these parts."
The same man eventually picked the courier out of a line-up that had been put together to test his recollection. Spiller says the courier, LeVane Forsythe, would later explain that he had been told Dummar was in the will because no one had ever helped Hughes to the extent Dummar had without asking for something in return.
Spiller and his team would later discover that the ink in the pen used to write the pages of the will had not been manufactured in "six or seven years."
Additionally the sealed packet of material given to Forsythe in the late 1960s, Spiller says, contained $5,000 in "red hundred dollar bills."
When Forsythe opened the envelope after Hughes’ death and took the money to a bank in Anchorage, Alaska (his home), the teller at first wondered if the bills were real. She had to check with superiors, Spiller says, to be sure.
"We found that girl later and she remembered the deposit because of the unusual bills," Spiller says.
So why did a Las Vegas jury eventually reject the will? Spiller shrugs, shakes his head and says, "That part of the case was up to the lawyers. I just know what I did and what I found."
But, he guesses that the "Mormon will" might have fared better if the case had been tried almost anywhere except Las Vegas.
The people running the Hughes empire at that time, he speculates, had little interest in seeing approved a document that would have turned Dummar into a wealthy man.
They leaned heavily on the argument that Hughes had not been outside the Desert Inn from the time he moved in on Thanksgiving 1966 until he left four years later.
Not true, Spiller says. "I remember a conversation with a guy who says one of the Hughes people comes suddenly running up to him saying, ”˜Howard’s on the run again.’"
It wasn’t until after Hughes’ death, according to Spiller, that anyone cared one way or another whether the eccentric billionaire was locked up at the DI.
But no argument was any more effective in the Mormon will’s eventual rejection than the sneering contempt that Hughes officials projected as they argued that Dummar’s assertions just did not make sense.
Would a man like Hughes do what Dummar said he did?
"I’m telling you," Spiller says nearly 30 years later, the sound of south Texas in his voice, "People could not make up some of the stuff we discovered to be true."