LAS VEGAS, Nev. (AP) _ The death of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes 10 years ago set off a scramble for control of his many enterprises and triggered a parade of dubious heirs.

Leading the list was Melvin Dummar, who had been a gas station operator, milkman, student, songwriter and beer-truck driver in the tiny communities of Gabbs, Nev. and Willard, Utah. He sought to collect a share of the Hughes estate with a tale that he had rescued the billionaire in 1968 at a desolate desert spot near one of Nevada's more celebrated brothels.

Before the dust settled in the whirlwind of legal activity, more than 40 purported wills and 400 prospective heirs surfaced, all laying claim to an estate estimated as high as $2 billion.

After years of legal wrangling, it was finally determined Hughes left no verified will. His two marriages produced no children, and the bulk of his estate went to 22 cousins.

The states of Texas and California spent eight years pursuing inheritance tax claims on the estate, with the case going to the U.S. Supreme Court three times. Administrators of the estate tried to claim Hughes was a resident of Nevada, which has no inheritance tax, but failed in that effort.

Finally, Texas and California reached a settlement on the tax question in 1984, after what Texas officials called ''the most publicized and complicated probate case in this country's history.''

Although the battle for the billions involved an army of attorneys, it was Dummar who grabbed the spotlight just three weeks after Hughes' death April 5, 1976.

Dummar told a number of stories about the genesis of what became known as the Mormon Will.

He said he was working in his Willard, Utah, gas station when a well- dressed man appeared and asked for him. He said the mysterious man left an envelope that directed the contents be delivered to the Clark County Courthouse in Las Vegas.

The envelope turned up at Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City. Dummar first denied, then admitted delivering it there.

The envelope contained a three-page handwritten will that left 1/16th of the Hughes estate to Dummar. Handwriting experts differed on whether it was written by Hughes.

Asked why he would be singled out for some of the Hughes millions, Dummar said he had found a man he believed to be Hughes, bleeding and dehydrated, in a desert area between Beatty and Tonopah, near the Cottontail Ranch brothel.

He said he had given the man a ride into Las Vegas and loaned him a quarter, never to see him again.

Hughes officials vehemently denied Dummar's story, saying Hughes never left his penthouse at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino from the time he arrived in Las Vegas in November 1966 until he departed the city four years later.

Dummar became an instant celebrity. He was wined and dined in places like Beverly Hills and appeared on television shows; a movie was made of his unique role in the Hughes saga.

But a District Court jury, after hearing seven months of testimony in a sweltering Las Vegas courtroom, took only a few hours to brand the Mormon Will a forgery in June 1978.

By February 1981, a probate judge in Houston had waded through the last of the Hughes wills. Judge Pat Gregory ended a five-year legal squabble by ruling that Hughes died without leaving a valid will.

Two years later, District Judge John Mendoza of Las Vegas signed an order that began distribution of the estate to the 22 cousins.