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Ghosts of Southern Hills: The Murder of Roger Wheeler

The wild story of Wheeler, Whitey Bulger, the Winter Hill gang and an executioner who still walks the streets today
January 08, 2024
TULSA, OKLAHOMA - MAY 22: EDITORS NOTE: A GRADUATED COLOUR FILTER USED IN THIS IMAGE: A general view of spectators watching Justin Thomas of The United States and Will Zalatoris putt on the 13th hole, the first hole of the sudden-death play-off during the final round of the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club on May 22, 2022 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

There are questions that matter, and questions that don't, but the questions that don't can still be fascinating. For instance: Was there a guardhouse in 1981 at Southern Hills? Opinion today is divided; either it wasn't there yet, or it was there, but nobody was in it. When Johnny Martorano drove his rented Ford sedan into the famous country club, we don't quite know if his journey took him past an empty building where, in theory, there could have been a guard. What we know is that nobody came close to stopping him, either then or a few hours later, when he finally spotted Roger Wheeler emerge from the locker room, after a round of golf and a drink with friends, and make his way to his Cadillac. Martorano didn't know exactly what Wheeler looked like, but he did know his car, and when he fell in step behind the man, he made a simple calculation: If he passes by, or goes to a different car, I keep walking. And if he doesn't, I kill him.

Wheeler was, by any account, an incredibly successful businessman, likely worth more than $100 million. He had owned and sold various companies, and was known primarily in '81 as the chairman and CEO of Telex, Inc., a sound equipment company that had expanded into computer accessories under his watch, and employed around 5,000 people in the Tulsa area alone. Opinions on his personality varied, but he was a pillar of the city in his way, and a constant figure at Southern Hills, where he maintained a 12 handicap and up to the day of his death played $1 nassau games with other members.

A few years earlier, Wheeler made the mistake of his life—he bought an outfit called World Jai Alai. At the time, the sport of jai alai had thriving pockets in places like Miami, and its popularity was almost entirely due to gambling. This was a sport that lent itself to a wager, and because the players were human beings (unlike at the horse or dog track) it also lent itself to match-fixing. And when there's money to be made, honestly and otherwise, you can bet the mob isn't far behind. What Wheeler apparently didn't know is that the people inside World Jai Alai, including a former star FBI agent named Paul Rico, were skimming from the company on behalf of themselves and the infamous Winter Hill Gang of Boston, led by the notorious Whitey Bulger.

What he did know, at least after a couple of years, was that they were stealing from him. In Wheeler's worldview, this wouldn't fly—he was used to getting his way, and trumping his rivals in business. He pushed hard, even sending his son down to Florida to investigate, and as he got closer to the truth, people like Rico and Bulger felt increasingly threatened. Wheeler's miscalculation, as he backed his adversaries into a corner, is that they were willing to do what nobody else in his life had been willing to do: to kill him.

In this week's Local Knowledge, we look at the story of Wheeler, Bulger, the Winter Hill gang, and an executioner in Martorano who still walks the streets today. It all came to a head at Southern Hills, when a malign power from far away reached into the heart of Oklahoma and brought down one of its titans for the crime of knowing a little too much. The effects of what happened that afternoon still resonate in places like Tulsa and Boston, and likely will for many years to come.