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Throwback Tulsa: Mob-style murder at posh golf course shocked Tulsa in 1981

Throwback Tulsa: Mob-style murder at posh golf course shocked Tulsa in 1981

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Photos: Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler 1981 murder case

Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler finished his usual Wednesday round of golf at Southern Hills Country Club at about 4:30 p.m. on May 27, 1981, took a shower and walked to his black Cadillac near the exclusive club’s swimming pool.

As Wheeler sat in his car, a man walked up and stuck a 38-caliber revolver in the driver’s window and shot him in the face at close range. Wheeler tried to fend off his assailant, the autopsy report showed, leaving abrasions and soot deposits on his left hand.

The barrel of the killer’s pistol was so close that the fatal gunshot left no powder burns on Wheeler’s face, but shattered his eyeglasses and embedded fragments in his eyes, the report said.

The 55-year-old millionaire and board chairman of Telex Corp. was carrying $996 in cash and eight credit cards in the pocket of his blue pin-stripe suit and wearing an expensive wristwatch.

Witnesses told Tulsa police that the bearded, beefy gunman ran to a waiting getaway car that sped away with tires squealing, according to a story by Tulsa World reporter Mike Kimbrell.

In pursuit of a hitman

Mike Huff, then a 25-year-old Tulsa Police homicide detective, rolled up on the crime scene a few minutes later. Thus began Huff’s relentless hunt for those responsible.

For the next 30 years, Huff and his partner Dick Bishop doggedly pursued leads, piecing together evidence of an unholy alliance of underworld characters and corrupt FBI agents.

The man who ordered Wheeler’s murder, Boston gang leader Whitey Bulger, was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years for murder and racketeering in Boston in 2013. Bulger, leader of the Winter Hill Gang, had spent 16 years on the lam before his arrest in 2011.

“Black Mass,” a movie starring Johnny Depp based on Bulger’s life, is set for release Sept. 18.

Wheeler was born into a middle-class family in Reading, Massachusetts. After attending MIT and Notre Dame, he graduated with an engineering degree from Rice University. He made his home in Tulsa with his wife, Patricia, and five children.

At the time of his death, he owned several companies, including Miami-based World Jai-Alai Inc., which he had bought for $50 million. Jai-alai is a fast-paced game somewhat like handball in which players hurl a ball using a basket. In Florida, pari-mutuel gamblers bet on the sport.

‘A good investment’

A self-described “staunch Presbyterian,” Wheeler told a Miami Herald reporter in 1979 that he had no philosophical objections to gambling.

“I thought it looked like a good investment, one where a fellow could make some money,” Wheeler said.

He also told the Miami reporter, “I feel comfortable surrounded by FBI types,” noting that there were six former federal agents working for the jai-alai company.

But soon, Wheeler began to suspect someone was skimming money off the operation. He also became concerned about his personal safety.

A few weeks before his murder, Wheeler had his pilot search his Lear jet for any signs of sabotage or a bomb, and then had the pilot take the jet up for a test flight before he would board it with his wife, according to a 1996 Boston Herald story. He also began carrying a gun in his car. The gun was found in his car trunk after his death.

‘You are a punk’

In 1987, the television show “Unsolved Mysteries” featured the Wheeler killing and included a scene in which Huff held up artist’s sketches of the killer and getaway car driver.

Among the viewers of the show was Johnny Martorano, a notorious mob hitman who admitted killing 20 people, including Wheeler. Huff later spoke to Martorano, he told John Erling for “Voices of Oklahoma, ” an oral history website.

“And he (Martorano) said, ‘I looked up and I saw you on television holding my picture on this “Unsolved Mysteries” show. … I knew right then I was going to meet you someday … ,’ “ Huff recalled.

Huff said the killers threw the murder weapon into the Arkansas River near 51st Street and Riverside Drive.

Martorano made a deal with federal and Oklahoma prosecutors in 1999 and received a 15-year sentence for killing Wheeler and John Callahan, former president of World Jai-Alai, whose bullet-riddled body was found in the trunk of his own car at the Miami airport in 1982. He served 12 years.

Wheeler’s son, David, addressed Whitey Bulger in court on Nov. 13, 2013.

“Shame on you Mr. Bulger,” he said. “For all your notoriety, you are a punk.”

David Wheeler also said “the greatest shame of all” falls on the FBI for using Bulger as a secret informant who formed a partnership with corrupt agents and became a “government-sponsored assassin.”

Read more Throwback Tulsa stories.

Debbie Jackson 918-581-8374

Hilary Pittman 918-732-8182


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