Howard Hughes came to Nevada in the 1960s to launder Mafia-owned gambling properties into white collar legitimacy. The agoraphobic industrialist and movie producer had a long and sordid history with organized crime. (See investigative reporter Howard Kohn’s “The Hughes-Nixon-Lansky Connection,” Rolling Stone, 1976.)
I bring up the Silver State’s checkered past because Melvin Dummar died Sunday in Nye County at age 74. Gas station owner Dummar gained fame by forging the infamous Mormon Will which purported to leave him one-sixteenth of Hughes’ billions, about $156 million.
Dummar asserted that he had picked up a bedraggled and disoriented Hughes on a lonely road in central Nevada. He purportedly got the old man to safety. The fanciful story was made into the multiple Oscar-winning 1980 Jonathan Demme film “Melvin & Howard” starring Paul LeMat, Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards.
When Hughes died, a handwritten will magically appeared in Salt Lake City apparently punching Melvin’s ticket to fame and especially fortune.
The Mormon Will was challenged in court and legal heavy hitters were betting that Melvin would win. All but one guy.
The late Reno top gun lawyer Bill Lohse and I used to hang out in Reno’s first fern bar, the fondly remembered Delmar Station in what is now called MidTown. Over beers one night, Lohse told me of hoisting a few at an upscale joint in the courthouse district with some of his peers.
One distinguished member of the State Bar asserted to a judge in attendance, “your honor, I’m at the heart of this matter and the Mormon Will be authenticated.”
Only Lohse disagreed, stating “no jury will believe Melvin Dummar.”
He knew of where he spoke. When Bill was fresh out of law school, a Nevada judge assigned him to take a pro bono case as a public defender in Hawthorne. A local office worker named Melvin Dummar was accused of forging a check and cashing it at the El Capitan casino.
When Bill asked Melvin “what’s your defense?” Melvin just smiled and said “I didn’t do it.” (Remind you of anyone in the news today?)
Showing why he became a great trial lawyer, young Lohse quickly confused and discredited all testimony against sly Melvin. (See Joe Pesci’s hilarious 1992 performance in “My Cousin Vinny” as a reference.)
Then things got rough. The prosecution’s star witness was the longtime casino cage cashier whose pre-trial testimony was simple: “I saw that man sign that check.”
Lohse pulled a Clarence Darrow. The legendary Scopes Monkey Trial defense attorney once had a criminal case he knew he was going to lose. His last resort was to put the defendant on the stand. Fortunately, smoking was allowed in court a hundred years ago.
Darrow bought a very good and very large cigar and tightly wound a stout wire through it. He told his client to take a single puff when he got on the stand, then hang the stogie over the railing of the witness box and never touch it again.
Darrow launched into the most nit-pickety, elongated, boring line of questioning he could create – while the day wore on and the cigar ash grew and grew and grew, but never fell to the floor.
His guilty-as-sin client was acquitted. Jurors said afterward that they couldn’t remember much of what the defendant said and thus thought it unfair to convict him. In reality, they had been effectively distracted, transfixed watching the cigar. Some might call it hypnosis, Darrow called it a win.
Lohse’s diversion was Mrs. Dummar and her infant. He instructed her that no matter what was happening in the courtroom, “every time I turn around, I want to see you cuddling, rocking and kissing that baby.”
Bill then launched into a long, sententious, convoluted line of questioning. By the bitter end, the cashier was so confused she herself was not sure what she had seen.
The jury almost acquitted Dummar save for just one who held out for conviction. Hung jury. Dummar walked and went on to greater glory.
That part of the story has never been told. Until now.
STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: The Reno News & Review alternative weekly is celebrating its silver anniversary. Two of their charter dinosaurs, columnist Bruce Van Dyke and news editor Dennis Myers, were present at the creation by former Reno Gazette-Journal reporters Mike Norris and Larry Henry and former Associated Press bureau chief Bill Martin. Myers and Henry both served hard time at the Tribune before meandering toward greater glory. Largely because of Myers, the RNR became and remains the best newspaper in the state.
Happy High Holly Days to you and yours.
Be well. Raise hell. Esté bien. Haga infierno.
Andrew Barbano is a 50-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com. E-mail <email@example.com>. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.