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Ohioan still wonders if paper in bottle is billionaire's will

SANDUSKY -- The handwritten pages were sealed in a wine bottle when they first floated into Diane Roepke Riedel's life, starting a mystery she hasn't been able to solve -- or completely let go of -- for decades.

Ms. Riedel was swimming with a friend at a northern Ohio beach in July, 1976, when she saw the bottle in the water, she recently told the Sandusky Register. The pair shattered it and discovered what appeared to be a will for eccentric billionaire and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who had died earlier that year.

"I was 15 years old. My mom and my dad said it wasn't real," Ms. Riedel said. "I went on with my life."

But she kept the document for decades because she couldn't shake the thought: What if it were real?

"Stranger things have happened," she said. "I didn't write it."

The document, which her family filed in local probate court, begins: "I, Howard Robard Hughes, being of sound mind & body, do hereby declare this to be my last will and testament … "

It is dated Feb. 3, 1976, about two months before Mr. Hughes died, and makes some unusual bequests: $500 million each to a daughter and son he purportedly fathered overseas; $200 million to save two ships; $50 million to a John C. Whitworth, whom Ms. Riedel researched and found to be a Sandusky man and head of the American Crayon Co., who died in the 1950s; and $10 million each for a Russian violinist, the Academy of the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, and the person who found the bottle.

Ms. Riedel said she put the document out of mind and out of sight for years, tucked away in her underwear drawer. Now the Huron real estate professional keeps it outside her home for security reasons, hoping to finally confirm whether it's authentic.

In all likelihood it's fake, Hughes biographer James B. Steele said.

"People claiming to be Hughes' children or beneficiaries of his will are legion and have been a cottage industry since he died in 1976," Mr. Steele, who co-wrote the book Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes, wrote to the Register.

In one higher-profile case, a Utah delivery man named Melvin Dummar unsuccessfully tried to claim a piece of Mr. Hughes' fortune using a hand-scrawled document that a court determined wasn't authentic.

Mr. Steele noted evidence that Mr. Hughes refused to execute a will after the 1920s and that Mr. Hughes would have been unlikely to leave money for the arts.

"It is amazing to me, but probably not surprising, how many people still keep coming forward 35-plus years after his death claiming a connection," Mr. Steele wrote.

There's also a matter of geography.

The document indicates it was written in Quebec, Canada, meaning it probably would have had to somehow travel along on the St. Lawrence Seaway to reach the beach where Ms. Riedel says she found it.

"I don't know what to think about it," she said. "It baffles even me how it came into my care."

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