U.S.A.

An odds-on motive for murder

Roger Wheeler's life was ruled by numbers. And so, police believe, was his death

Michael Posner June 22 1981
U.S.A.

An odds-on motive for murder

Roger Wheeler's life was ruled by numbers. And so, police believe, was his death

Michael Posner June 22 1981

An odds-on motive for murder

U.S.A.

Roger Wheeler's life was ruled by numbers. And so, police believe, was his death

Michael Posner

On the practice tee, scions of Tulsa’s moneyed class—blonde, each of them—are learning to correct a slice. A golf cart, canopied against the sun, wheels silently down the lush green fairway and stops, depositing a solitary figure clad in white. A dull splash rises from the swimming pool. From the pro shop, bright with chrome, one can watch the Cadillacs and Lincolns come and go. Outside, an unmistakable sound: the patrician tread of golf cleats on asphalt. This is Southern Hills Country Club, sheltered preserve of Oklahoman gentry.

On the afternoon of May 27, at approximately 4:30 p.m., Roger Wheeler, 55, chairman of Telex Corp., finished his weekly round of golf: he shot 88. Intending to return to his office, he showered quickly, dressed, strode through the parking lot to his car, opened the door and climbed in. A man approached, drew a revolver and shot Wheeler once, in the face. Last week Tulsa police were still looking for the weapon, the motive and the killer.

Of his kind, Roger Wheeler was not, perhaps, the prototype but the classic form: an aggressive, hard-nosed,

shrewd and tireless entrepreneur, with an instinct for making deals. He made them constantly; as other people are into yoga or gourmet cooking, Wheeler was into money. Like Gatsby, he was never quite still: oil, gas, real estate, computers, jai alai, refrigerators. The products were immaterial, it was the profit that counted. Getting and spending, his life was defined by numbers: annual revenue, interest rates, lines of credit, cash flows, personal worth. In ways not yet understood, Wheeler’s death too—police believe—was ruled by numbers. Said a friend who was not surprised by the murder: “He just stood up the wrong guy.”

In his office in Tulsa’s police court building, chief of detectives Maj. Stanley Glanz is chain-smoking Marlboros.

Two days earlier, Telex Corp. had announced a $100,000 (U.S.) reward for information leading to conviction, and Glanz, head of an 11-man investigation task force, is monitoring the calls. A crude drawing has been sketched on a wall blackboard depicting the Southern Hills parking lot, Wheeler’s car and the car that drove the killer away, a late model Ford LTD with Oklahoma plates. Police illustrations of the killer and his driver-accomplice lie facing him on the desk: two white males, both in their 40s, both bearded, both wearing sunglasses.

“The licence tag is probably our best lead for now,” Glanz says, drawing tightly on the cigarette. One witness was able to recall five of the six digits on the plate, and the task force has been poring through vehicle registrations trying to trace the ownership. “I don’t suppose we’re likely to find the weapon.”

The motive, too, remains elusive. Although Glanz refuses to rule out robbery, no money appears to have been taken from the body. Similarly, police still contend Wheeler may have been shot in a kidnapping attempt: Oklahoma has a history of such cases. But by far the most avid speculation has focused on Roger Wheeler’s ownership of the Miami-based World Jai Alai Inc., a string of three frontons (arenas) with pari-mutuel betting which last year netted about $35 million. That sort of quick and easy profit tends to capture the attention of organized crime, and it is the view of many that Wheeler’s stubborn, abrasive character set him inevitably on a collision course with the underworld.

That view has been fuelled by reports of live cartridges found on Wheeler’s body—a signature of the crime; by the unconventional loan practices of Boston’s First National Bank, which financed Wheeler’s $59-million purchase of World Jai Alai Inc. in 1978; and by his recently formed partnership with owners of three Miami dog tracks, to set up summer jai alai. A shareholder in one of the tracks is Jack Cooper, an associate of reputed underworld financial wizard Meyer Lansky. In 1962, Cooper neglected to report profits of $590,000 on the sale of weapons to former Dominican Republic strong man Rafael Trujillo.

A devout, church-going Presbyterian who regularly attended Bible study sessions with other Tulsa businessmen, Wheeler is said to have had ethical res-« ervations about his connections with gambling and was reportedly willing, if not actively seeking, to sell his jai alai« interests. “I do all the gambling I needo to in the business,” Wheeler said last year in one of only three interviews granted since the mid-1960s. “The business” meant not only Telex, of which he owned 10.45 per cent, but dozens of other companies, some dormant, through which Wheeler channelled money, often to escape the Internal Revenue Service. Conceivably, says Glanz, it was conflict in one of these activities that led to his murder.

Glanz hopes the reward offer will yield some useful leads, but he is not optimistic. “If you hired two guys to kill somebody,” he asks, “and then $100,000 was offered for information, what would you do?” The answer is obvious to him. “You’d get rid of the killers, wouldn’t you? Before they were found and could incriminate you?” The combined intelligence of the Tulsa task force, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and three private detectives retained last week by Telex is now directed at finding the assassins before their employer does.