LAS VEGAS – He’s the mafia guy who disappeared after flying over the Stardust Casino. No, he’s the resort manager being hunted down by the Chicago Outfit. Could this be the work of a muscled biker gang in Mafia territory? Or maybe someone just fell off a boat after too many.
Since the bodies began to appear this month in Lake Mead – the first in a barrel, the next half-buried in sand, both exposed by falling water levels – theories in Las Vegas have been flourishing about who they are, how they ended up in the nation’s largest man-made reservoir, and what might surface next.
Lynette Melvin found the second body with her sister while paddling. At first they thought they had stumbled upon the bones of a bighorn sheep. “It wasn’t until I saw the jaw with a silver filling that I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s human’ and started to panic,” said Ms Melvin, 30.
The discovery of human remains is always a source of tragedy and potential pain for loved ones, especially when they show signs of a violent end. But in Las Vegas, a city where seedy bellies are part of the draw, macabre fascination and amateur sleuthing soon followed.
As Ms. Melvin said, “There’s a lot of mystery around them.”
The grim findings come amid the Southwest’s driest two decades in more than a thousand years, as drought-starved water bodies produce one surprise after another.
At Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, a bachelor party came across a fossilized mastodon skull which is millions of years old. In Utah last year, the receding waters of Lake Powell revealed a car who had plunged 600 feet from a cliff, killing the driver. And as Lake Powell dries up, archaeologists have the chance to study newly emerged indigenous dwellings.
In Las Vegas, obsession with the remnants of Lake Mead combines anxiety over the city’s dwindling water supply and fascination with how gangsters shaped the Mojave Desert outpost into a glittering play paradise, where pleasure-seekers float down lazy rivers and frolic in colossal pools amid the parched landscape.
Now only 30% full, Lake Mead has already fallen to its lowest level since it was filled during the Great Depression, sparking fears in places including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, which are drawing also water from the reservoir above the Hoover. Dike.
Federal authorities announced this month that they would delay discharges from the Colorado River into Lake Mead, about 30 miles east of Las Vegas, lowering it even further.
Jennifer Byrnes, a forensic anthropologist who consults with the Clark County Coroner’s Office, which includes Las Vegas, said warming temperatures could reshape her profession. Long-term drought and other changes in the landscape make grimmer discoveries possible and require planning for high-fatality events like deadly heat waves, storms, and wildfires.
“Climate change is going to directly affect our field for years to come,” said Dr. Byrnes, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In some cases, this means help in ending old cases. After a pickup truck with a woman’s body inside was found in a receding lake in Texas in 2014, officials used dental records to identify a woman disappeared since 1979.
Still, Dr Byrnes said, human remains found in places like Lake Mead can be particularly challenging. The reservoir is so large that its currents can circulate a body away from where it drowned or was thrown, and cause it to shatter. A body in a container like a barrel, she said, could decompose faster than a body exposed to water. And scavengers like water bugs, crabs, fish and birds can complicate efforts to determine identities and causes of death.
None of this has stopped amateur sleuths from digging into the clues in Las Vegas’ hottest new cold cases. So far, police investigators have said they do not expect foul play in relation to the body found by the paddlers.
But detectives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said the victim in the barrel appeared to have died of a gunshot wound, likely in the mid-1970s or early 1980s, based on clothing and shoes.
At the time, even as local authorities sought to minimize the influence of organized crime syndicates, gangsters from Midwestern cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Kansas City, Missouri wielded immense influence around Las Vegas. Today, the Mafia’s role in Las Vegas is considered insignificant, but nostalgia for the era of grown men has established itself as a big moneymaker.
For a price of $119.95, visitors can take a “crowd tour” that showcases sites where car bombing and other underworld activity took place. At the downtown Mob Museum, tourists, beers in hand, attend exhibits depicting the city’s bloody past.
“This is the town that denied having mob ties,” said John L. Smith, 62, a prominent author and columnist whose family has been in Nevada since the 1880s. city that puts it on billboards.”
As the museum makes clear, barrels were not unheard of among Mafia body disposal methods. In 1976, John Roselli, a crime figure linked to Las Vegas, was found dead floating in one of Biscayne Bay, outside of Miami. And Mr Smith said in a Nevada Independent column that the discovery in Lake Mead also evoked memories of a cold case involving Johnny Pappas, a Chicagoan who disappeared in Las Vegas in 1976.
Pappas, whose underworld associations were noted during his disappearance, ran a resort on Lake Mead backed by a Teamsters pension fund and had been involved in Democratic politics. “Back then, Las Vegas was a much smaller city where half the people were connected, or wanted you to think they were connected” to the crowds, Smith said.
Other body theories also abound. David Kohlmeier, a retired police officer who is now a podcaster and social media personality, is offering a $5,000 reward to divers who find more remains in Lake Mead. The areas where the two bodies were found, he said, may have been dumping grounds linked to other crimes. “I think it was gang-related in some way, but it could mean it was a biker gang,” Mr Kohlmeier said.
Either way, Travis Heggie, a former public risk management specialist for the US National Park Service, said Lake Mead stands out among recreation areas and national parks for its potential link to criminal activity. – as well as places like Big Bend National Park on the border. with Mexico.
“The criminal element of Las Vegas just overflows into Lake Mead,” said Heggie, who has long been fascinated by what lies deep within the reservoir. Even if there are no more barrels with bodies, he says, “there will be a lot of guns and a lot of knives.”
The lake also keeps the wreckage of a B-29 Superfortress – one of the largest aircraft used in World War II – which crashed in its waters in 1948, as well as a magnificent complex of ancient Puebloan ruinscomprising a structure of more than 100 rooms.
Hikers can already hike to St. Thomas, a once-submerged Mormon settlement that resurfaced in Lake Mead as sun-bleached ruins as the drought persisted.
While Lake Mead has long seen mishaps and treacherous acts, Michael Green, 57, a historian who grew up in Las Vegas, noted that mob figures often preferred to commit execution-style murders away from town, in order to protect the gaming industry from bad publicity.
In a notorious cold caseInfluential Riviera Hotel chairman Gus Greenbaum and his wife, Bess, were gunned down at their Phoenix home after suspicions surfaced that he had robbed other investors.
Mr. Green, whose father was a casino croupier with the distinction of having been fired by Lefty Rosenthal, the inspiration for the mobster portrayed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film ‘Casino’, has his own body-in-barrel theory.
It revolves around Jay Vandermark, a slot supervisor at Stardust Casino who was involved in a scheme to skim slot proceeds. Vandermark, who also allegedly pocketed funds from his mob bosses, disappeared in 1976.
“I don’t think they ever found the body,” Mr Green said.