Melvin Dummar, Utahn who claimed a piece of Howard Hughes’ fortune in ‘Mormon Will,’ dies at 74

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utahn Melvin Dummar claimed he saved Howard Hughes' life by picking him up in rural Nevada on a frigid night and was repaid by being named in the reclusive billionaire's will.

Melvin Dummar, a Utah gas station owner who became the stuff of legend, punchlines, a Hollywood Oscar winner and years of litigation over a chunk of Howard Hughes’ estate that was supposedly left to him, died Saturday. He was 74.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, which reported Dummar’s death, quoted Ray Dummar as saying his brother had been battling cancer for the third time. Dummar had been living in recent years near Pahrump, Nev.

Melvin Dummar insisted he gave Hughes, one of the greatest yet most reclusive business magnates of his day, a ride in a pickup truck on a cold night in the Nevada desert on Dec. 29, 1967. Before Dummar dropped him off in Las Vegas, the man identified himself as Howard Hughes, though Dummar didn’t believe him, he said years later.

Hughes died in 1976. Three weeks later, April 27, Dummar said he received an envelope at his gas station in Willard, Utah. It purported to be Hughes’ will.

The handwritten document left assets to medical institutes, charities, the Boy Scouts of America, relatives and executives at Hughes’ companies. It also left one-sixteenth of the estate each to Dummar and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because of that last supposed beneficiary, the document became known as the “Mormon Will.”

Dummar estimated his share at $156 million. He never got a cent.

A Las Vegas jury in 1978 found the will to be a forgery. There also were court cases in California, Texas and Utah. Dummar lost them all.

He sold the rights to his story to Hollywood. “Melvin and Howard” was one of the best-reviewed films of 1980. It won two Academy Awards, including best supporting actress for Mary Steenburgen.

Dummar later would say the $90,000 he received from the film was absorbed by his legal fees. In a 2005 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he and his wife, Bonnie Dummar, recounted the hurt they felt from the decades of ridicule.

“You’ve just got to learn to turn the other cheek,” Melvin Dummar sighed.

“Yeah, but we’re running out of cheeks,” Bonnie Dummar quipped.

Melvin Earl Dummar was born Aug. 28, 1944, in Cedar City. Various sources say he was one of either eight or 10 children born into a family that moved around. He largely grew up in Fallon, Nev.

In 1963, Dummar enlisted in the Air Force. He was discharged after nine months due to his “emotional makeup,” according to the book “Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes,” by legendary investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele.

That book also recounts how, in 1968, Dummar was arrested and charged with forging a $251 payroll check from his employer, Basic Refractories Inc., in Gabbs, Nev. A jury would not reach a verdict, and the charge was dismissed.

Dummar held a series of odd jobs and appeared on game shows. He won a car, a freezer and a range over multiple appearances on “Let’s Make a Deal.” He won another car on “Hollywood Squares.” He also appeared on “The Price Is Right.”

He had split from his first wife when he was driving on U.S. Highway 95 between Gabbs and Las Vegas the night in late 1967 when he said he found Hughes. Dummar said he pulled onto a dirt road to stop and urinate. He saw a man facedown. Dummar was about to contact the sheriff when the man regained consciousness.

“I couldn’t leave him there,” Dummar told The Tribune in 2006. “He would have died of exposure.”

The man asked for a ride to the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, in Dummar’s telling. Dummar said he left Hughes at the back door of the hotel and gave him some pocket change.

Dummar had bought the gas station in Willard by the time the “Mormon Will” emerged. His story became a national sensation. Wire services spread it all over the world.

Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon joked on “The Tonight Show" about Dummar and Hughes — Carson struggled to pronounce Dummar’s name — and pondered whether the story could be true.

“There’s going to be people picking up hitchhikers all over the country now,” Carson quipped.

There were multiple problems with Dummar’s assertions. The document had misspellings, contradictions and misstatements about Hughes’ businesses and assets.

First, Dummar told reporters he didn’t know how a copy of the will arrived at the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters, but he later acknowledged that was a lie. Dummar resealed the envelope and dropped it off at the headquarters. He explained his actions later by saying he thought someone was playing a joke on him, and he was confused.

Publicity also muddied Dummar’s claims. There were crank calls and visitors. In one example, two weeks after Dummar received the envelope, an Edmonton, Alberta, man arrived at the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office with a newspaper article about Dummar in hand and said he was riding with Dummar when they picked up Hughes. The Canadian said it was he, not Dummar, who gave Hughes 25 cents when he asked for money. His claims went nowhere.

At the Las Vegas trial in 1978, Bonnie Dummar had to answer questions about how she had pleaded guilty to welfare fraud in Orange County, Calif., in 1973, before she married Melvin Dummar. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to repay the money.

But the couple never wavered from Melvin Dummar’s assertion he gave Hughes that ride.

“If I had to do it over again,” Melvin Dummar told The Tribune in 2006, “I’d pick up Mr. Hughes.”