Tangled dead-gray branches crack and snap as Wayne Dammert walks through the woods on a Northern Kentucky hilltop. He scuffs away a layer of soggy blackened leaves to reveal a plumb-level cement floor in the woods. “This was the Garden Room,” he says. “It was all windows, looking out on a fountain over there. You can still see the outline.”

Sure enough, a circular depression of rubble and bricks with splashes of aqua paint from the bottom of the fountain pool is surrounded by scraps of rusting junk and wires that snake out of the ground. But Dammert sees the fabled Beverly Hills Supper Club in all its glowing chandelier glory—gold-flocked white wallpaper, acres of plush red carpets, a sweeping spiral staircase with ornate golden railings and the opulent Cabaret Room that featured James Brown, Phyllis Diller, Chuck Berry and Rich Little: the “Showplace of the Nation.”

“Sometimes I dream about it,” he says. “In my dream the Beverly Hills Supper Club is big and going strong and I’m working there again… but I get lost.” Like so many survivors, he can’t find his way out of the past—May 28, 1977, when the beautiful, tragic nightclub went down in flames.

Dammert was hired as a dealer in 1957 when the Southgate, Ky., club was an illegal mob casino. He worked there until 1961, when reformers cleaned up Northern Kentucky and shut it down. Then he was hired again when it re-opened in 1971 as Cincinnati’s classiest nightspot for anniversaries, proms, romantic dinners, birthdays and shows that brought Las Vegas to the Ohio River.

He met his former Rockette wife, Betty, there. As captain (maître d’), he collected autographs from Red Skelton, Pat Boone, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Raquel Welch, Mel Torme and dozens of stars. In the mob days, he dealt blackjack for “Screw” Andrews, “Sleepout” Louie, “Red” Masterson, Moe “Mr. Las Vegas” Dalitz and Tito Carinci, who made national headlines by drugging the reformer sheriff candidate and posing him with a stripper. (It backfired.)

Dammert was there on a warm spring Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend 38 years ago when he saw a fire “roar through like a freight train,” killing 165 people and two unborn infants. He led more than 100 to safety through cave-dark, smoke-clotted hallways on the second floor. He prayed over dozens of the dead and dying on the hillside. He’s still haunted by the two women he could not save. He helped police find them the following rainy Monday as the ruins smoldered—the final victims of the third worst nightclub fire in U.S. history.

“I feel terrible about it. I think about it several times a week. We found those two bodies right there,” he says, pointing to a rod of rebar tagged with a ribbon. “I tried to get to those ladies. But if I had, you would be counting me in the dead.”

The ballroom floors where brides and prom dates waltzed are now carpeted in moss and memories. Broken dishes, melted silverware, chair legs, bottles and shoes still work their way to the surface. “I’ve been up here a couple of hundred times,” he says. “I still can’t believe it happened. I remember thinking, ‘God, it is on fire—and there are 2,500 people here.’ I will always, always feel bad about the great people who died here and shouldn’t have.”

The official version blamed bad wiring. Cincinnati lawyer Stan Chesley launched his career with a class-action lawsuit, sued the aluminum wiring industry—among others—and collected $50 million. But Dammert scoffs: “I have no doubt it was arson,” he says. The lawyers blamed wiring, he says, because, “There’s no money in arson.”

He’s not the only one who believes that the truth was buried with the smoking rubble. So does Glenn Corbett, professor of Fire Science at John Jay College in New York, who helped investigate the Trade Center terrorist attack on 9/11. Corbett studied the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire and says, “The most compelling thing to me when I looked at the paperwork was the surprising deficits in the original investigation.”

“I’m not prone to conspiracies. But nobody showed there was aluminum wiring anywhere near the Zebra Room where the fire started. And one of the biggest issues is that the area of origin was destroyed pretty quickly. That raises red flags to me.”

Dammert says he saw a crane tear into the Zebra Room on Sunday before the ashes had cooled. After the final bodies were found on Monday, demolition began almost immediately, possibly destroying critical evidence with no chance for a proper arson investigation. Former Kentucky State Fire Marshal Rodney Raby says, “The fact that we were not allowed to investigate makes it even more obvious that it was arson.”

Raby knew the top arson investigator on the scene, Deputy Fire Marshal Clell Upton, now deceased. “Clell believed it was arson from the beginning,” Raby says.

But then-Gov. Julian Carroll, who arrived the night of the fire, blamed the owners. “Clell told Gov. Carroll it was arson, but the governor told him to back off,” Raby says. “It made no sense at all. They destroyed the whole scene.”

A conspiracy to cover up the most deadly crime in Kentucky history sounds like a topic for the Tinfoil Hat Society—unless you know the local underworld history.

The first Beverly Hills Club was opened in 1936 by Pete Schmidt—a former driver for Cincinnati bootlegger George Remus. The casino was such a hit it attracted Moe Dalitz, the boss of the Cleveland Four Syndicate. Dalitz later became “Mr. Las Vegas” as owner of the Desert Inn and Stardust casinos.

Dalitz told Schmidt to sell or else. Schmidt said no. His club was burned down in 1937 by three mobsters and Schmidt sold to Dalitz in 1940. By the late 1940s, it was the region’s glitziest “carpet joint,” drawing Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and others. It made half a million a year with Dalitz on the payroll. State and local politicians were regulars.

In 1960, The Saturday Evening Post called Newport “Sin City of the South,” the mob’s “open city.” Clubs that did not sell out to the Cleveland Syndicate had a high rate of spontaneous combustion.

In the early 1960s, reformers called The Committee of 500 crusaded against mob gambling. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy put Newport at the top of his mob targets. The mob closed the Beverly Hills Supper Club in 1961.

Richard Schilling, owner of another Newport club, The Lookout House, bought Beverly Hills in 1969 and spent $3 million on remodeling. But his new club was burned again by a suspicious fire before it was finished. It finally reopened in 1971. By 1977 it was making millions. And then the guys in pinstriped suits showed up.

In The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy, by Robert D. Webster, waitress Shirley Baker says that a few weeks before the fire she overheard a meeting in the bar: Two men in pinstriped suits told Shilling they intended to buy him out. When he refused, they said, “You might not have a club to sell.” Shilling threw them out.

David Brock, who was working as a busboy at the time, says he heard about the meeting from the owner. “He was like a father to me. Mr. Schilling told me, ‘They want the skim back. They want to buy it.’ They left a check for Mr. Schilling to fill in with his own numbers.”

On the night of the fire, Brock worked in the Cabaret Room, where about 850 to 950 waited to see singer John Davidson. At 9:04 p.m., as the crowd watched a warm-up comedy act, busboy Walter Bailey “ran up and said, ‘Hey Brock, there’s a fire in the Zebra Room.’’’

Two minutes later, Bailey took the stage, grabbed a microphone and told everyone to calmly exit the building. “It just didn’t register,” a waitress said later. Most thought it was part of the show or paid no attention. Within 10 minutes the room filled with smoke and deadly fumes from burning polyvinyl chloride foam used in the furniture. The lights flickered, then went out at 9:18. The panicked crowd pushed and piled on top of each other, blocking the exits.

Most who died were in the Cabaret Room, killed by smoke and toxic fumes. Some were burned so badly the bodies were fused together, mingled in charred debris.

As Bailey urged the crowd to get out, Brock ran toward the Zebra Room and watched as another busboy kicked in the smoking doors, causing a flashover of flames and black smoke. “All you could see was soot and flames. I heard the mirrors on the wall exploding. The backdraft tried to suck us in.” The fire seemed to be coming from a chandelier, he says.

He guided people out the back through the kitchen, where hundreds were able to escape. But there was something else he will never forget.

That same morning Brock was in the Zebra Room to set up a wedding reception. “I saw two guys working on the ceiling, above a chandelier. They had pushed the ceiling tile out to get to the wiring.”

They told him to come back in 45 minutes. “When I did, they got agitated. I told them I need to set the room up and they said, ‘Just get outta here.’ I asked ‘What are you working on?’ and they said, ‘The air conditioning.’”

But there was no air conditioning in the Zebra Room, Brock, Dammert and other employees say.

That same day, a hostess at the club told Brock she saw a man and two women wiping down the hallway from the Zebra Room to the Cabaret Room with a clear liquid. In 2007, Brock was contacted by a young woman who told him that when she was a child, her family came to the club, entered the back doors and sponged a milky liquid onto the walls, then left in a hurry when they were discovered.

Brock, operations manager for a Cincinnati area business, has spent a fortune trying to find the truth. He has more than 100 boxes of police files, depositions, photos and evidence. And he says thousands more photos and documents are missing from state and federal files. Kentucky State Police were ordered to turn over 1,500 color photos and slides—but only 500 have been released, Brock says.

Yet among those 500 are color pictures that show the fire started in the basement below the Zebra Room, say former Fire Marshal Raby and Fire Science Professor Corbett. “I saw a lot of things that were strange, especially in that basement,” Raby says of the photos.

The pictures show stripped wires pushed into an outlet; fountains of soot from flames shooting upward; a hubcap-size hole blown in the air-handling system; stray wires that don’t belong.

Brock believes timers were set in the basement and ceiling of the Zebra Room to ignite the fire, and the hallway walls were wiped down with liquid graphite extender, a flammable, colorless accelerant that sent the flames racing down the hallway to the Cabaret Room.

Brock says he was too scared to tell police what he had seen in 1977. “Anyone who would kill that many people wouldn’t think twice about me.” But since a reunion in 2002, when survivors compared notes about mysterious “maintenance men,” threats and arson, he has been “tenacious,” says Raby.

The late owner’s wife, Marge, told state investigators that when she got home at 3 a.m. on the night of the fire she found a folded message spelled out in words clipped from a newspaper: “We burned you before we’ll burn you again. You keep building we’ll keep burning.” Brock says he confirmed the letter with the Schilling family lawyer.

In 2008, a group of survivors demanded a fresh investigation. A state panel—two lawyers and the same special prosecutor who found no evidence of arson in 1978—took a look, but decided the case was closed, concluding: “All of the physical evidence is gone.”

But the witnesses and survivors are not, Corbett says. “These people need to be interviewed before they’re all gone.” He says an investigation by outside arson experts is long overdue.

Brock wonders if timers and other evidence could still be found buried in that basement under the Zebra Room. What about the missing pictures and evidence? What about the mystery men and threats? Why was arson not thoroughly investigated?

When Dammert visits the Christ statue memorial he put up on the Supper Club hilltop overlooking I-471, he remembers a vision that flashed before him in that dark hallway choked with smoke and frantic people. “All of a sudden I saw a bright picture of my wife and children in a meadow. It just lasted for a second. But it was real. That was God telling me to get the hell out of there.”

Those who did not get out deserve the truth, Raby says. “This was not just a fire,” says the former state fire marshal. “It’s a massive murder case. All those families lost people who just went out to have a good time and were slaughtered in a horrible way. And there’s no statute of limitations on murder.”

Under the tangled brush, moss and dead leaves, pieces of the past are still working their way to the surface—a scorched highball glass, the sole of a shoe, a twisted, blackened spoon. The Beverly Hills Supper Club is still giving up its secrets.