The hit at Southern Hills – golfer Roger Wheeler killed 20 years ago

Dave Kindred

Twenty years later, a millionaire’s family still waits for justice

When the U.S. Open returns to Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club in June, the club’s 61st Street entrance will be gated and guarded. It once was open. It was open on Wednesday, May 27, 1981, when a light brown car, thought to be a Ford or Pontiac, drove in.

On Wednesdays it was Roger Wheeler’s habit to play golf at Southern Hills. The men in the brown car knew that. They waited in the club’s parking lot, there by a pool clamorous with splashing and squealing children.

They waited for Wheeler to have a drink. That, too, was the Tulsa millionaire’s habit.

There’d be a round of golf with his regular buddies, followed by a shower, a Scotch, and a chocolate-chip shake.

He was 55 years old, a husband, father of five, 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, well built, fit, a 12-handicapper, an energetic man who every morning ran 311/42 miles on the Southern Hills golf course.

Wheeler’s son, Larry, says, “He loved the game’s strategy and competition and discipline. He worked at it diligently. He’d work the rules, tee times, the best partners, so he’d have an edge. He had a shag bag, and he’d go out in the yard–we had seven, eight acres–and practice his short game.”

Every other year, the son says, Wheeler bought a Cadillac and performed a golfer’s ritual: “He’d back the new car up to the old one, open the trunks, and lift that heavy bag of clubs into the new car. You’d see it sink under the load.”

On this Wednesday in May of 1981, dressed for the office and idling at a table in the Southern Hills locker room, Wheeler passed time with a man from whom he might buy an airplane.

It was after 4 o’clock. The men in the brown car waited in a parking space near Wheeler’s black Cadillac. Tulsa County authorities say the men picked up guns sent by bus to Oklahoma, supplied by two bosses of a Boston underworld organization. When the hired killer said the murder couldn’t be done at Wheeler’s home or office, a third man said he knew when and where Wheeler would play golf.

At 4:20 that afternoon, Wheeler walked through the locker room’s rear exit into the poolside parking lot. He opened his car door and started to slide in. He was stopped by a beefy, bearded man in sunglasses who jerked the door from Wheeler’s hand. Though Wheeler raised his left arm in defense–flashburns showed as much–the assassin needed only a single shot.

Roger Wheeler has been dead 20 years, shot between the eyes, one bullet, .38 caliber, delivered by a professional assassin.

The hit man left four live cartridges inside and around the car, perhaps a signature of his black art. No one reported seeing the murder done. But people heard a firecracker sound, and they came into the parking lot, where they found Wheeler dying.

By then, and before the chaos of sirens and police helicopters fell upon the club, the brown car sped toward a back entrance, carrying the killer toward his next job.

For John V. Martorano was a busy man. His Boston bosses in the Irish Mob saw to that. They had a long list of men whose silence they desired. They had won a war with the Italian Mafia that long ruled Boston’s streets. Their allies included corrupt FBI agents who protected them from arrest in exchange for information leading to career-building arrests of the Italians. One agent had been a boyhood pal of James Joseph (Whitey) Bulger, the Irish Mob’s top boss, their paths diverging until ambition and circumstance joined them in common cause.

Soon enough, that FBI/Irish Mob partnership produced a vipers’ nest writhing with snakes practicing bribery, extortion, drug dealing, and murder. It was no longer possible to tell the good guys from the bad guys–as Roger Wheeler would learn.

For 30 years, Wheeler reveled in the rough-and-tumble of business. He was called “tough,” “abrasive,” “a genius,” “abrupt,” “obnoxious,” “eminently fair,” “very competitive,” “discourteous,” “a good guy, not a crook.” The Massachusetts native who started his first business at age 14 had built a corporate empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This was a man who confronted IBM. He believed Big Blue illegally was involved in “predatory pricing” of his Telex Corp. machines. In 1972 he mounted a three-year assault that ended with a settlement somewhere under a court’s $259.5 million judgment in his favor. Or, to quote Tulsa lawyer Jerry Truster, “Roger beat their pants off.”

Another lawyer, Pat Malloy, knows the feeling–only he learned it on the golf course.

“In the club’s big four-ball tournament, my partner and I had several short putts, normally conceded, that Roger made us putt out,” Malloy says. “Then he came to the eighth hole and had a short one of his own. He just kept looking at us, like, ‘Well?’ Finally, my partner says, ‘Go ahead, it’s good.’ And I told my partner, ‘The s.o.b. won’t give us anything, why’d you give it to him?’ “

Cash-rich after the IBM settlement, Wheeler made a business decision that led to his death.

“One of my father’s dreams was to have a home in Nantucket,” Larry Wheeler says. “He’d grown up in the Boston area, he’d won a Sankaty Head golf tournament on Nantucket, and he wanted a home there. That’s one reason he got into jai-alai.”

For $50 million, Roger Wheeler in 1978 bought World Jai-Alai Inc. The company had one fronton in Connecticut, four in Florida. Jai-alai, a gambling game with a history of corruption, was far afield from Wheeler’s manufacturing and financial holdings. Larry Wheeler says his father liked the company’s profit margin.

In a rare interview, done in 1979 with The Miami Herald to promote his jai-alai business, Wheeler explained his penchant for privacy: “What would I gain by an interview like this in Tulsa? I have enough golf buddies. It doesn’t make me a dime.” Then he said publicity might intrigue kidnappers. He even asked the reporter to mention the FBI: “I feel comfortable surrounded by FBI types. We have six in the company here.”

Larry Wheeler says his father was “very concerned that the previous president, John Callahan, had left the company because of organized crime. So he questioned the FBI types. They said it was nothing, and he believed it. He came from that generation when the FBI cleaned up organized crime.”

That trust was misplaced, the son says. His father had stepped into the vipers’ nest. On May 27, 1981, Roger Wheeler surely knew he had bought into a dirty business funneling money to the Irish Mob.

It’s not likely that a tough, honest man would willingly accept mob partners. Most likely, says the Southern Hills golf pro of the time, Jim Lucius, “Roger took exception, and they took exception to his taking exception.”

So Irish Mob boss Whitey Bulger dispatched John V. Martorano to Tulsa, where he would take exception violently.

For 18 years, Martorano’s identity as Roger Wheeler’s killer was unknown. But in 1999 Martorano made a deal with federal and Oklahoma prosecutors. He admitted to killing Wheeler as well as John Callahan, the previous jai-alai president. In return for a promise of a 15-year sentence, Martorano agreed to sing about 20 murders he did in the hire of his bosses Whitey Bulger and Stephen (The Rifleman) Flemmi.

On March 14 this year, Tulsa County prosecutors charged Martorano, Bulger and Flemmi with Wheeler’s murder. Martorano’s driver has died, and a fifth conspirator was himself murdered, perhaps by the industrious Martorano.

A Tulsa trial may be years away, because Martorano and Flemmi face charges in other jurisdictions. Bulger is a fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, accused of 18 murders.

A sordid, tragic tale–all spinning from a spring day at Southern Hills Country Club when a Tulsa millionaire seemed at ease.

Jerry Truster, once a Tulsa County assistant district attorney, remembers Wheeler as “very cautious, paranoid” about personal safety, so much so he once “sent his pilot up alone in a new plane for a test drive.” But, Truster says, “On that last round of golf, there’s no evidence of any apprehension.”

Nor did Bob Allen, a Wheeler friend and golf partner for 20 years, see anything untoward on that last Wednesday. If anything, he remembers the day’s light-heartedness.

“It was an exceptionally good day of golf for me,” Allen says. The game was a dollar nassau, Allen getting three a side from Wheeler. “We never played for much. But I did take his money, and Roger said, ‘Every dog has his day.’ “

As Wheeler left the locker room, laughing, he told golf shop manager George Matson, “I’ll see you Saturday. Be sure to get my handicap up. These boys are killing me.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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