Melvin Dummar never got rich.
And lots of people think he's a liar.
But a rescue effort is under way for the Brigham City man's reputation, if not his bank account.
A veteran detective says he's found new evidence proving Dummar was telling the truth three decades ago about a legendary encounter in the desert with eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
In 1976, Dummar's story made him the world's most famous gas-station operator. He might have become the richest one, inheriting one-sixteenth of the Hughes fortune. But a jury rejected his story and declared an alleged will of Howard Hughes to be a hoax.
"I just know that I got ripped off," Dummar said last week. "And nobody would believe me."
The eccentricities of Howard Hughes are now on display in the Oscar-nominated film "The Aviator." Dummar's purported encounter with Hughes was portrayed in a 1980 Oscar winner called "Melvin and Howard."
Dummar's story always did seem like something Hollywood dreamed up. He claims that while driving through rural Nevada one night in December of 1968, he pulled onto a dirt road to answer the call of nature.
He says he found a scraggly, bearded man lying injured in the desert. Dummar drove the stranger to Las Vegas and did not believe it when the man claimed to be Howard Hughes.
In 1976, when the real Howard Hughes died, he was the most famous billionaire in the world. The question of who would get his money became an international guessing game. When a handwritten will was discovered in Salt Lake City, it created a worldwide sensation.
The document became known as the "Mormon Will" because someone had mysteriously dropped it on a desk in the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The purported will divided the Hughes estate into 16 equal shares, with one share designated for the LDS Church itself and another sixteenth for "Melvin DuMar."
When the world press corps beat a path to Dummar's gas station in Willard, Box Elder County, he professed surprise at the existence of the will. He told reporters his story of the old man in the desert, but Dummar said he never knew if the stranger really was Howard Hughes.
"I thought he was a bum," Dummar told reporters in 1976. "I lent him some money."
The first-cousins of Howard Hughes mounted a fierce court battle. If they could prove the will a hoax, they stood in line to inherit the entire fortune. The cousins' strongest ammunition in court was the fact that Dummar eventually admitted he lied about an important aspect of his story.
When his fingerprint was found on the envelope that contained the will, Dummar acknowledged he was the one who delivered it to LDS Church headquarters. But he claimed he got the document from a mysterious stranger who brought it to his gas station. Dummar said he read the will and didn't know if it was real or a hoax. Not knowing what to do, he drove to the Church Office Building and dropped it on a desk.
After a Las Vegas trial that lasted several months, a jury declared the will a hoax and branded Dummar a liar.
"I wouldn't have had a chance even if God himself had delivered the will," Dummar said last week. "So many people thought I was a con artist or a scammer. And they treated me like a criminal."
But retired FBI agent Gary Magnesen hopes to rescue Dummar's reputation. He's a former top organized-crime investigator in Las Vegas. After he retired, someone asked him to look into Dummar's story.
"I thought Melvin was a kook," Magnesen said from his home near St. George. "It didn't make any sense at all. Why was Howard Hughes out in the desert in the middle of nowhere? Why did he look like that? Didn't make any sense at all."
But after two years of investigation, Magnesen switched from skeptic to advocate. "I believe it completely," Magnesen said. He's rewriting the Dummar story in a book to be published this fall.
He said he discovered three important new witnesses who prove beyond a reasonable doubt Dummar's story is true. They include employees of Hughes who knew the reclusive billionaire ventured from his Las Vegas hotel in 1968. "Howard told them that he had been picked up by Melvin after it occurred," Magnesen said.
His investigation also turned up a 1968 deed that may help explain the desert encounter between Hughes and Dummar. It shows the Hughes organization purchased an interest in 32 mines, located on the very dirt road where Dummar says he picked Hughes up.
"This explains why he was there," Magnesen said. "He had an option to buy those particular mines at the exact period of time that Melvin picked him up."
The veteran FBI man says he's found strong evidence there was obstruction of justice, intimidation of witnesses and possible jury tampering during the trial of the will's authenticity. "And so there was a miscarriage of justice," Magnesen says. "Hopefully, at least, I will have straightened that out."
He hopes his findings will undo the image of Dummar as a fool and a fraud. "He's had to live with that all these years," Magnesen said. "As this new evidence now comes up, hopefully people will know he's telling the truth."
These days, Dummar ekes out a living driving across vast stretches of Utah and Nevada selling packaged meat. "I had to create my own job because nobody would hire me," Dummar said. He welcomes Magnesen's investigation. "It does make me feel a lot better, for what it's worth."
It's not likely to be worth any money at all. The Hughes estate was long ago divided up by 17 Hughes cousins and the tax collector. "As far as any financial gain or anything like that," Dummar says, "I think it's water under the bridge."
comments on this story
Magnesen is keeping most of his new evidence under wraps until later this year when his book will be published. It's tentatively titled "The Investigation: An Ex-FBI Agent Exposes the Secrets of the Howard Hughes Will."
Dummar has heart trouble and survived a recent battle with cancer, but his genial personality survives. And so does his long marriage to Bonnie Dummar. She was thrust into the public eye and viewed with suspicion along with her husband almost 30 years ago.