Delivery man challenges Howard Hughes' will

A delivery man from Utah has gone to federal court to argue that he is owed a large fortune from the estate of Howard Hughes that he says was promised to him as a reward for rescuing the reclusive billionaire from a bed of dust in the desert more than 40 years ago.

It is a return trip for Melvin Dummar, 63, whose first attempt to lay claim to $156m he said was left to him by Hughes was thrown out by the courts in a lengthy probate trial in 1978. Though he was widely branded a liar at the time, he says he is trying again with a new witness ready to back him up.

His Good Samaritan tale is already well known, not least because it became the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film directed by Jonathan Demme in 1980 named Melvin and Howard.

Mr Dummar still sticks by its every detail. He relates driving from Utah to California in December 1967, stopping at a place called Lida Junction in the middle of Nevada to relieve himself by the side of the road and finding a man face down in the desert scrub. The filthy figure, who he deposited at the Sands Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip, turned out to be none other than Hughes.

It was some time later, according to his version of events, that an aide to Hughes delivered an envelope at the petrol station that Mr Dummar owned in Utah. It contained a hand-scrawled note that purported to be a new will with the provision to bequeath the $156m to him for his good deed.

In a court in Denver last week, Stuart Stein, the lawyer who has taken up the case, argued that associates of Hughes had knowledge of the hand-written will at the time of the first probate trial but withheld it. "The judgment was obtained by fraud," Mr Stein told the three-judge panel. If the claim has more weight today it may be thanks to Robert Diero, a former director of aviation for the Hughes Company and private pilot to the boss. Breaking a confidentiality agreement with his former employers, he has recalled flying Hughes to Lida Junction on the date in question to visit a nearby brothel. He lost track of his charge and flew back to Las Vegas without him.

"This man performed an act of generosity and kindness that I believe saved Hughes' life," he suggested after first coming forward four years ago. "It's a matter of morality. I'm sure it was Hughes' intention to reward Melvin Dummar."

Mr Dummar, now a frozen food delivery man, is suing to reclaim what he believes to be his from two beneficiaries of the will that was approved so many decades ago. They are William Lummis, a cousin of Hughes, and Frank Gay, the former chief executive of the company that controlled much of the aviation pioneer's personal fortune. Mr Gay, however, died last year.

Randy Dryer, representing one of those estates, told the Denver court that the claims of fraud at the first probate trial are mere "speculation and conjecture". He said that even if a jury were to believe Mr Diero's testimony, "it doesn't necessarily follow that the jury would have concluded that the [will] was valid".

He added: "They could have easily concluded that Mr Dummar saw a golden opportunity to reward himself for his good deeds."

The court is expected to rule late this year on whether a new probate trial should be heard.