The Utah ranch that became a hangout and hideout for mobsters, prostitutes, polygamists ... and Adam and Eve?

Legacy of the D.I. Ranch is wrapped up in Book of Mormon yarns and Vegas intrigue.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) This building exists on the site of the D.I. Ranch, near St. George, where reputed Las Vegas mobster Moe Dalitz lived.

St. George • Mobsters, prostitutes, polygamists, bandits and Adam and Eve are just a few of the people reported or rumored to have frequented a large ranch in southwestern Utah.

While the original ranch house and other buildings are no longer there, cowboys and others in the St. George area still gather around the campfire or the hearth in their homes on occasion to reminisce about what was up and speculate about what went down at the ranch years ago. For most, however, the place is too remote and too under the radar for them to be familiar with its past or present.

Indeed, the D.I. Ranch — short for Desert Inn Ranch — hardly seems like a gathering point for sinners, saints or anyone else, for that matter. Located in rugged cactus country 25 miles west of St. George, the 831-acre cattle ranch is in the middle of nowhere and seemingly light-years from everywhere.

Still, this former high-desert retreat was no garden-variety hideaway. Some polygamists believe the site is either the long-lost biblical Garden of Eden or Adam-ondi-Ahman, the latter a place members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe Adam and Eve lived after being cast out of their Edenic paradise.

Others have asserted the surrounding hills were the haunt of the Gadianton robbers, a secret society the Book of Mormon says sallied out of their wilderness sanctuaries 2,000 years ago to petrify and plunder their law-abiding neighbors.

Yet another claim is that nearby red cliffs were the landing site of the Jaredites, a group that Mormonism’s signature scripture relates fled the Holy Land during the Tower of Babel and crossed the ocean in submersible barges to found an ancient civilization in the New World.

Larry Shurtleff heard many of polygamists’ revelations about the D.I. when he managed the ranch for the late Hyrum W. Smith, prominent Latter-day Saint co-founder of Franklin Quest Co., and his wife, Gail, who owned the place during the 1990s. Shurtleff vividly recalls the conversation he had with John Shugart, who owned the ranch for two years before losing it in 1980 after defaulting on an $82,500 payment, according to the Washington County Historical Society.

Shugart, a polygamous preacher with a small band of followers, wanted to turn the ranch into a religious retreat to await the apocalypse that would usher in the Second Coming. About a dozen years after losing the D.I., Shugart talked to Shurtleff and asked him to no avail if he could return and take over managing the ranch.

“He told me the D.I. was the Garden of Eden and [he and his group] planted 10,000 fruit trees when he owned the ranch,” said Shurtleff, adding only five of them survived. “He wanted to plant more fruit trees and turn it back into the Garden of Eden.”

Another story, more secular than sacred, that gained currency is that notorious outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once holed up and hid gold at the lower Guerrero home on the south end of the ranch.

“When we bought the ranch, people would break in and knock holes in the wall looking for gold,” Shurtleff said. “I don’t think anyone ever found anything.”

Hanging out, hiding away

(Suzanne Dalitz via The Moe Dalitz Archive) Moe Dalitz on horseback at the D.I. Ranch.

Tales about the D.I.’s history as a desert hideaway for mobsters are a little less fanciful and a bit more rooted in reality. In 1954, reputed mobster Moe Dalitz purchased the property and named it the D.I. Ranch after the Desert Inn, the luxury hotel and resort he owned at the time on the Las Vegas Strip.

Dalitz owned laundries and was a rum runner for the Little Jewish Navy band of bootleggers during Prohibition, ferrying illegal booze across Lake Erie from Canada to the U.S. He also ran a string of illegal casinos in Cincinnati and on the other side of the Ohio River in Kentucky.

When Congress turned up the heat on organized crime after World War II, Dalitz relocated his gambling operations and resurfaced in Las Vegas, where gaming was legal. He and several partners with ties to the mob took over construction of the Desert Inn in 1949, which developer Wilbur Clark had started but lacked the funds to finish.

Clark was essentially the frontman for the hotel and casino while Dalitz and his partners pulled the strings behind the scenes. Dalitz then parlayed the success of Desert Inn into other, mostly legitimate, investments that forever changed the Las Vegas landscape and also supported a number of charities that helped burnish his tarnished reputation. In fact, so many took a shine to Dalitz that by the time of his death, in 1989, he counted powerful politicians such as then-Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt as close friends and had been honored by the Anti-Defamation League with the Torch of Liberty Award.

“He was a major player,” said historian Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs for The Mob Museum in Las Vegas. “He had his fingers in all kinds of things in Las Vegas and played a role in making it a better place through his good works. But, in the end, he was [still] a mobster, and he probably was skimming off the top from the Desert Inn and Stardust [casino], where he also had an investment.”

When Dalitz bought the D.I. Ranch, he transformed it into a cattle operation and hunting lodge, where he loved to escape the Las Vegas heat — literal and legal — to host guests, ride horses and hunt mountain lions.

(The Mob Museum) Moe Dalitz with a mountain lion he killed while hunting at the D.I. Ranch.

The ranch was reputedly a haven for mobsters in hot water with the law to hide out and cool down. It was also supposedly a discreet retreat for showgirls, high rollers, prostitutes, enforcers and, on occasion, actors and other celebrities.

Rod Leavitt, who lived in nearby Gunlock, partnered with Dalitz and managed the ranch. Among other things, he built an airstrip where guests, many of them flying out of Las Vegas, could arrive by plane rather than negotiate the long, rough dirt road to the D.I.

Seeing stars, burying bodies

(Suzanne Dalitz via The Moe Dalitz Archive) Horseback riding at the D.I. Ranch.

One of the stellar visitors was star Elizabeth Taylor, who visited the D.I. on one occasion wearing a white outfit ill-suited for the ranch.

“She was worried about her appearance because of all the wind, dirt and everything,” said Rod Leavitt’s son Jay, who was a child at the time. “She thought she might not look as glamorous as she should.”

For the ranch’s rougher guests, there were reportedly wild parties and prostitutes on hand to show them a good time. Emeritus Latter-day Saint general authority Steven E. Snow, an attorney and the former church historian, remembers the tour a client, subsequent D.I. owner Herb Fletcher, took him on years ago to show him where the guest lodge had been.

“What really caught my attention,” Snow recalled, “were these little cabins — he called them ‘rabbit hutches’ — where [Dalitz] kept the girls … and he told me some of the names of the mobsters that came out [to the ranch].”

There were allegedly even darker deeds done at the D.I. under the cover of darkness. St. George resident Jerome Jones remembers talking with Dalitz while herding cattle at the ranch during the summers as a boy and listening to stories around the campfire.

“I heard stories about people digging holes in the creek by the D.I. and driving a car full of [dead] people into the creek and burying them,” said Jones, adding his father sent him to bed when the stories got too sordid.

When the Smiths bought the ranch in the 1990s, Shurtleff said, locals would often pop by to regale him with anecdotes about Dalitz and the D.I. He said a cardinal rule for cowboys staying and herding cattle at the ranch was not to venture out of their buildings at night.

Shurtleff said one cowboy woke up one night after hearing a noise and walked out to a wash to investigate.

“There was this backhoe digging a big hole to bury a car,” Shurtleff recalled the cowboy saying. “I asked him, ‘What did you do?’ He answered, ‘Nothing, I just went back in and never said a word to anyone.’”

Others told Shurtleff that the D.I.’s cattle business had more to do with laundering money than livestock and that unwelcome visitors to the ranch would find themselves on the business end of an Uzi carried by armed guards. The saying among locals at the time was that the letters “DI” really stood for “don’t intrude,” according to former Salt Lake Tribune reporter Tom Zoellner, who wrote about the ranch a quarter century ago.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Author Tom Zoellner, shown in 2014, wrote about the D.I. Ranch when he worked for The Salt Lake Tribune.

For their part, Jones and Jay Leavitt don’t dispute Dalitz’s mob background but believe many stories about him and the ranch are overblown or outright fibs. They remember him as a soft-spoken gentleman who genuinely liked people, hunting and hanging out with cowboys on horseback or around the fire.

Dalitz’s daughter, Suzanne Dalitz Gollin, a writer who lives in New Mexico, concurs.

“He loved being a cowboy,” said Suzanne, who was 6 years old when her father and mother, Averill, divorced. “He identified more with a Wild West dream than he did wanting to extend his bootlegger or racket boss era. It was like he was looking to leave that behind.”

(Suzanne Dalitz via The Moe Dalitz Archive) Moe and Averill Dalitz and their daughter, Suzanne, on a visit to the Grand Canyon.

Some of Suzanne’s fondest childhood memories are riding with her parents en route to the D.I. Ranch and spotting Red Mountain.

“I was a pixie-haired rascal in a red cowgirl hat, bouncing in the back seat of the big Land Rover,” she recalled in a 2016 presentation to the Washington County Historical Society. “Back then, I was his little girl, the only daughter of the man they called the ‘Great Gaming Pioneer’ of the early Las Vegas Strip.

“Red Mountain meant we were at the halfway point between the Mesquite Dairy Queen and our beloved Desert Inn Ranch,” she continued. “By the time we spied Red Mountain, I was so giddy from the soft serve ice cream I would, at the least provocation, break out into that song about where the deer and the antelope play. By the time the Land Rover lumbered down the last rocky switchback, the three of us sang our traditional song together, ‘She’ll be comin’ round the mountain.’ "

Pilfering polygamists and the aspiring actor

(Suzanne Dalitz via The Moe Dalitz Archive) Moe and Averill Dalitz and their daughter, Suzanne, on a visit to the Grand Canyon.

During his life, Dalitz was said to have beaten every rap except his checkered past. The same could be said of the D.I. Ranch. More than a decade after Dalitz sold it in 1969, Mormon-born aspiring actor Virginia Hill took $1.5 million from her then-husband, Henry Allen Hilf, when the Detroit bookie was sentenced to federal prison for sports gambling in the late 1980s, according to historian Scott Burnstein.

Hill then moved to St. George and stashed her cash in the home of an uncle who was an associate of Shugart, the onetime D.I. owner and a former bishop in the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren, led by Owen Allred. Shugart later persuaded Hill to help buy the ranch.

Upon learning that UAB members had absconded with her money and funneled it to other individuals and companies instead of purchasing the D.I., Hill sued the church and its leader in 1997, alleging civil conspiracy, fraud and money laundering. In 2003, a Utah judge ruled that Allred and members of his sect had bilked Hill out of her money and awarded her $1.54 million and interest.

Today, Kayenta developer Terry Marten and his partners own the D.I. Ranch and are more interested in the water rights that came with the land than its unsavory past. Others, however, savor the stories and cherish the history of the hideaway.

Said Zoellner: “The D.I. Ranch was an intriguing amalgam of fringe LDS culture and Las Vegas sleaze. Two very different human geographies collided at this place. The D.I. Ranch deserves a historic marker.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.