“You know, I’ve been in the business for almost 40 years, and I’ve never been on the national news.” CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite
May 28th, 1981
(The day after the Wheeler Killing)
As I walked into the PR building the morning after our owner, Roger Wheeler, had been shot, I had no idea what to expect. Donovan’s “You handle it,” directive was still ringing in my ears.
Outside my office sat Ellen Rangel, my administrative assistant. “Messages are on your desk, Marty. The phone has been ringing off the hook,” she told me.
As I entered my office, my desk was no longer dark brown, it was pink. Neatly line up were eight columns of the “While You Were Out…(Blank) Called” small slips peppering every inch of available space. I began to read the names printed at the top: New York Times, Washington Post, Tulsa World, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Hartford Courant, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune. These were only a small sampling of the newspapers that called.
Then, there were the networks: CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, PBS, Telemundo, Univision. One named jumped out at me. Geraldo Rivera called. The list just went on and on. I knew I needed some guidance on what to do, what to say. So, I went across the parking lot to Dick Donovan’s office, World Jai-Alai’s President and CEO, my boss.
I told Donovan that the national media were all looking for a comment as well as the local Miami media. He still looked badly shaken. I knew he must have been on the phone with our corporate attorney as well as Roger’s in Tulsa. Paul Rico, the ex-FBI agent and Chief Operating Office, was, also, sitting with him.
“Marty, don’t talk to anyone,” Donovan first told me. I told him that would probably be impossible since I have over 50 calls to return. “Well, I’m not doing any interviews!” he said. “You do them but tell the press the killing had nothing to do with World Jai-Alai or the sport of Jai-Alai and that’s all we know.”
At least Donovan was allowing me to make a statement. The magnitude of this murder demanded a response. I knew that our ex-FBI agents, now executives in the company, were always reluctant to talk to the press. No doubt the media could be a hindrance in solving crimes. The FBI was notorious for being secretive. But I knew the media frenzy was just beginning.
Already there were headlines in the Tulsa newspapers, “Wheeler Murdered!” or “Telex Chairman Gunned Down at Country Club.” Then, the link to his gambling interests immerged.
The media started talking about this “devout Presbyterian, highly religious church-going man, chairman of the board of Telex Corporation, who expressed reservations about being involved in gambling.” That became the guiding theme.
I had never heard anything about Roger Wheeler having “reservations” about his investment in World Jai-Alai. He certainly had no “reservations” about making money. And we were making loads of it.
He was, also, making lots of money in his company, Wheeler Oil. I had heard he was not easy to do business with. He had a habit of squeezing out the last nickel in his past deals and making plenty of enemies in the oil business. But, of course, blaming his link to some foreign sports game that involved gambling would garner more attention.
I started picking the largest newspapers and networks first. Some just wanted a quote. Each of the major networks wanted an onsite interview. So, I told them I was available all day long. I even called back Geraldo. He wanted to come to the fronton and talk to me. I agreed.
As I began fielding the questions, I kept repeating, “This has nothing to do with our company or our sport.” “No, we have nothing to do with The Mob!” “No, Jai-Alai is not fixed!” “Roger Wheeler rarely visits Miami or Miami Jai-Alai, comes maybe once or twice a year.” “Why not look into his other dealings.” These were my honest answers. I was hiding nothing.
My most memorable interview was with The CBS Evening News. This was the newscast anchored by the most renowned and revered newsman in the country, Walter Cronkite. While I was not interviewed by Cronkite but by a local CBS affiliate reporter, I did appear on the CBS Evening News that night.
I got a call from my dad about 7:30, just after the broadcast. My father was quite the local Tampa Bay celebrity and appeared nightly on his own sports show. It was telecast by CBS affiliate WTVT, Channel 13.
“Mard, I saw you being interviewed on the Cronkite show tonight,” my Dad, known as “Salty Sol,” said to me. “You know, I’ve been in the business for almost 40 years, and I’ve never been on the national news.” I think he was proud of me for making the Cronkite telecast, even if it was about a murder.
A national manhunt would begin that would last more than 20 years. Shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and other national “Who Done Its” would feature the Wheeler Killing. Clues were scarce. But the Tulsa Police Department would visit Miami often, scouring our files, interviewing our personnel, trying to find the link to the killing.
Meanwhile, Roger Wheeler, Jr. would become the Managing Partner and the family continued its ownership in World Jai-Alai. Business was not affected, and our four frontons continued record-breaking numbers. However, the national media tour with American superstar Joey was put on hold.
My attention returned to the sport of Jai-Alai. I wanted to expand our Tournament of Champions from just Tampa vs. Miami to include other big frontons within the state. I thought this could generate fan interest and ultimately more money for the frontons and the players.
Coincidentally, the State of Florida decided to allow the frontons to take 1% of the betting and use it for advertising or promotion. A state-wide Jai-Alai tournament would be considered a promotion. Thus, the National Association of Jai-Alai Frontons Tournament of Champions was born.
This would be the first-time frontons in Miami, Dania, Palm Beach, and Orlando would compete against each other in a state-wide competition. It would feature the best players in the world.
It was agreed that I would be the Tournament Coordinator. I thought dealing with the national media was tough. Dealing with the players, player managers, and owners proved to be even tougher.
But more trouble was heading our way when murder #2 was about to unfold.