Back in 1976, it looked like the LDS Church was going to enjoy a $156 million windfall. The reason? It was the death of billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, who apparently executed a will leaving one-sixteenth of his estate to the Mormon Church and another one-sixteenth to a man named Melvin Dummar.
The claim, which was ultimately rejected by a court in Nevada, went like this.
During the last week in December of 1967, Dummar was driving in the late evening in rural Nevada. He pulled off of the main road for a short rest and found a man lying in the road. The man was clearly in distress. Dummar offered to help him, at the man’s request, and drove him to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. During the ride to the Sands Hotel, the man identified himself as Howard Hughes, the industrialist. After Dummar left the Sands Hotel in December of 1967, he never again had contact with the man who had identified himself as Hughes.
Howard R. Hughes, Jr. died in 1976. Shortly after his death, a stranger allegedly delivered an envelope to Dummar at his place of employment in Willard, Utah. The envelope was addressed to David O. McKay, the late President of the LDS Church. Although the envelope was addressed to McKay, Dummar steamed open the envelope and found a handwritten document purporting to be Hughes’ last will and testament. Dummar delivered the envelope to the LDS Church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah and left it on a secretary’s desk, intending it to be delivered to the then-President of the LDS Church, Spencer W. Kimball.
On April 29, 1976, the LDS Church filed the handwritten document purporting to be Hughes’ holographic will for probate in the Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada. Among other bequests, the purported holographic will bequeathed one-sixteenth of Hughes’ estate to Dummar and another one-sixteenth of Hughes’ estate to the LDS Church. Dummar v. Lummis, 2007 WL 81808 (D.Utah 2007).
It was well-known that Hughes appreciated Mormons he employed, because they did not drink, smoke or gamble and they worked hard. Rosemont Enterprises, Inc. v. Random House, Inc., 256 F.Supp. 55 (S.D.N.Y. 1966).
The validity of the Mormon Will was litigated in an action brought by Hughes heirs, who but stood to inherit more if the will was found invalid and Hughes was ruled to have died intestate. William Lummis, the administrator of the estate, was not party to this litigation. The court in Nevada found the will to be a forgery. Rhoden v. First Nat. Bank of Nevada, 96 Nev. 654, 615 P.2d 244 (Nev. 1980).
Meanwhile, Hollywood got involved. The film “Melvin and Howard” was released in 1980 It depicted Dummar sympathetically. California and Texas fought each other in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine which state could claim Hughes lived their for purposes of estate taxes. California v. Texas, 457 U.S. 164, 102 S.Ct. 2335 (1982).
Dummar came back more recently, filing a lawsuit in Utah alleging that there was a conspiracy between the estate’s administrator and Hughes’ assistants to deprive him of what he was due. He alleged misconduct related to the trial. He learned from a pilot that on various occasions before December 1967, Hughes had flown to locations in southern Nevada to investigate sites for a terminal for supersonic jets and to visit brothels. The flights were arranged by Howard Eckersley, a close aide of Hughes. During late December 1967, Eckersley had the pilot take Hughes to visit a prostitute at the Cottontail Ranch at Lida Junction in rural Nevada. While waiting for Hughes at the brothel, the pilot fell asleep; when he awoke, he was told that Hughes had left alone. The pilot then returned to Las Vegas without Hughes. Some months after this incident, he accepted an executive position with a company owned by a friend of Hughes. Before the pilot left, Eckersley ordered him to turn over his flight logs and company records so that all references to Hughes as his passenger could be removed. The pilot then signed a nondisclosure agreement, which he honored.
Dummar also claimed to have learned that after the Mormon Will was delivered for probate, there was a meeting of aides close to Hughes in which it was decided that all would testify that Hughes never left the Desert Inn Hotel, where he lived, for years at a time; (2) the estate administrator and another Hughes aide bribed and threatened the aides to testify falsely; (3) top aides, including Eckersley, did testify falsely that Hughes never left his hotel during the period in question; (4) an aide himself testified that there was a “possibility” that Hughes left the Desert Inn, but he denied any actual knowledge of such a departure; (5) high doses of codeine contributed to Hughes’s death, and aides were “involved in” the destruction of boxes of empty codeine vials; (6) a member of the jury successfully campaigned to be elected foreperson by using typewritten notes that he claimed to have prepared at home from his handwritten trial notes, thus “irrevocably taint[ing]” the verdict, (7) after the trial a reporter was threatened and warned not to interview this juror or investigate the reasons for the probate verdict; (8) there was a pattern of threats, including of bodily harm, against witnesses who were to testify for Dummar; (9) the opponents of the Mormon Will paid more than $100,000 for expert testimony on handwriting; and (10) it was “understood” that the jury foreperson had his debts at Hughes’s casinos forgiven.
Judge Bruce Jenkins ended up throwing the Dummar challenge out, citing faith in the Nevada ruling, and he was affirmed on appeal. Dummar v. Lummis, 2007 WL 81808 (D.Utah 2007); Dummar v. Lummis, 543 F.3d 614 (10th Cir. 2008)