Remembering the Howard Hughes “Mormon Will”

Jeff BreinholtMormon 16 Comments

HowardHughesBack 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).MelvinDummar

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)

Comments 16

  1. I was working for a lawyer — my bishop — in Las Vegas, just around the corner from the Clark County courthouse, when this will was filed, with lightbulbs flashing and cameras whirring. It was quite the excitement there for a while. I still don’t know what to think about Dummar’s story.

  2. I am closely acquainted with one of Dummar’s attorneys in the 1976 case. There was plenty of evidence to corroborate Dummar’s claim. The story of the jury foreman is interesting, to say the least.

    We’ll probably never know. I believe that the present Senator Bennett was one of Hughes’ aides.

  3. Actually, I think Bennett had a public relations company named Mullins Co. that competed for Hughes’ business but didn’t land it. That was part of the reason for the Watergate break-in: Bennett was hoping to get dirt of his rival, Larry O’Brien, who got the contract. Someday, I’ll write the blog post on the Mormon connection to Watergate.

  4. Senator Bennett just released a book comparing forgeries for Howard Hughes to the Book of Mormon. I’ve wondered why Bennett believes he’s an expert on forgery.

  5. Looking at the alleged involvement Howard Hughes had in politically motivated organised crimes. The LDS church is very fortunate not to receive the the money.

    Now just the little issue of the Marriott Pornography Empire.

  6. The Church ended up with a great piece of property in the Nevada desert, known as “Warm Springs” it is near Mesquite. It is now a stake family camp. It has a phenomenal warm swimming spring and some great green spaces. It is truly an oasis, in the true sense of the word. Word is that it had been a hideaway for Howard (before air conditioning, a place to get away from the city was crucial) and he gave it to the Church. Anyone heard of this? I have been there and it is a phenomenal place, so I know it exists, I am just wondering about the history.

    1. Of all these posts it seems to me that yours finally hit the nail on the head. For their troubles the Mormon Church ended up with a natural hot springs. Practically every great religious shrine started at a hot spring, and practically every known hot spring has or had, some sort of shrine set up. Much more valuable than mere money, especially to temple builder types like architects, sculptors, scribes, masons, and carpenters all throughout the ages.

  7. What a strange man and a strange story. I’d be interested to find out the rationale behind the Mormon Church’s decision to have the will probated. Did they feel that they were obligated to file it once they had possession of it, or were they really interested in the money? I think I agree with MrQandA that the LDS Church was better off without the cash.

  8. Here are the facts:  The so-called “Will” referred to above left 1/16 to Dummar and 1/16 to the Hughes’s aides at the time of his death .   There were six of them so they each would have inherited approximately $25 million.   Now, at the trial, all of them testified that Hughes had NOT left the Desert Inn.   However, if they had testified that Hughes had left the Desert Inn they would each have received $25 million.   So, if you believe the article above, you believe these six people lied in order NOT to receive $25 million!  Explain how that makes any sense.  
    I was Corporate Secretary of The Howard Hughes Corporation and Director of Corporate Records and was very much involved in the trial.   Thre is absolutely no truth to the Melvin Dummar story.   Incidentally, not all the aides to Hughes were Mormons.   Paul B. Winn

    1. Ray – I began in 1957 as one of Hughes’ personal secretaries.   I traveled with him and spent a great deal of time with him.   While he was in Las Vegas from 1966-1970 I worked the midnight shift in the Operations Office so I could go to law school.   After I passed the California Bar exam I moved up in the company, becoming Executive Assistant to Bill Gay, then moving to Las Vegas, where I worked directly for Will Lummis.   I was Director of Corporate Records, Corporate Secretary, and Secretary to the Board of Directos.   I was directly involved in everything that was going on.   Some folks just insist in dealing with the stupid stuff and ignore the facts.    The  “Mormon” myth will never die!!
      Paul B. Winn

  9. For Paul B. Winn: I am really interested in the Maheu matter. Hughes said in an interview over the telephone, that I personally lisented to way back then, that “he stole me blind” or something very similar. What exactly was the alledged crime. What did Hughes believe was stolen and how. This was never clear.

  10. Then you must know about Hughes coming to Alaska in 1968, June to be exact. So Winn were you aware that Hughes had a double stand in for him while he was in Alaska. He set up Hughes tool at the now Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, AK. He also hung out with me for some time and I got to know him quite well. He was suppose to be out of Nevada and an article in the Anchorage Times claimed he was missing. I had to run over and buy him a newspaper, comedy at high noon.

  11. Was the signature on the will a forgery? How would Melvin know what Hughes signature looked like. Bit of a gamble there it seems , on Dummars part. Had to be signed by someone close to Hughes. Good movie though.

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