LAS VEGAS – It is the mafia man who went missing after skimming the Stardust casino. No, it’s the manager of the lake, hunted by the Chicago Outfit. Could it be the work of a biker gang gathering on the mafia grass? Or maybe someone just fell off a boat after one too many.
Since the bodies began surfacing in Lake Mead this month — the first in a barrel, the next half-buried in the sand, both uncovered by the falling water levels — theories have flourished in Las Vegas about who they are, how they made it into the largest man-made reservoir of the land, and what might emerge next.
Lynette Melvin found the second body with her sister while paddleboarding. At first they thought they had stumbled upon the bones of a bighorn sheep. “It wasn’t until I saw the jawbone with a silver filling that I thought, ‘Wow, this is a 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 the seedy underbelly plays a role, macabre fascination and amateur detective work soon followed.
As Ms. Melvin put it, “There’s a lot of mystery around them.”
The dismal findings come amid the Southwest’s driest two decades in more than a thousand years, as drought-starved bodies of water present one surprise after another.
At the Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, a bachelorette party stumbled upon a fossilized mastodon skull that is millions of years old. Last year, the receding waters of Lake Powell in Utah revealed a car that had fallen 600 feet off a cliff, killing the driver. And as Lake Powell dries up, archaeologists will have a chance to study newly emerged native habitats.
In Las Vegas, the obsession with the remnants of Lake Mead combines the fear of the city’s dwindling water supply with the fascination with how mobsters have transformed the Mojave Desert outpost into a glittering gambling paradise, where pleasure seekers float along lazy rivers and frolic in colossal pools amid the arid landscape.
Now just 30 percent full, Lake Mead has already fallen to its lowest level since it was filled during the Great Depression, sparking fear in places like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., which also draw water from the reservoir above the Hoover. Dam.
Federal authorities announced this month that they would be delaying discharges from the Colorado River to Lake Mead, about 30 miles east of Las Vegas, causing it to decrease even more.
Jennifer Byrnes, a forensic anthropologist who consults with the Clark County coroner’s office in Las Vegas, said global warming could reshape her profession. Prolonged droughts and other changes to the landscape allow for more grim discoveries and require planning for mass casualties such as deadly heatwaves, storms and wildfires.
“Climate change will directly impact our field in the coming years,” said Dr. Byrnes, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In some cases, that means helping to put down old cases. After a pickup truck with a female body inside was found in a receding Texas lake in 2014, officials used dental records to identify a woman who had been missing since 1979.
Still, said Dr. Byrnes, human remains found in places like Lake Mead can be especially challenging. The reservoir is so large that the currents can circulate a body far from where it was drowned or dumped, and cause it to disintegrate. A body in a container like a barrel, she said, could decompose faster than a body exposed to water. And scavengers such as water bugs, crabs, fish and birds can complicate efforts to establish identities and causes of death.
None of that has stopped amateur sleuths from delving into clues in Las Vegas’ hottest new cold cases. So far, police investigators have said they don’t expect any malicious intent in connection with the body found by the paddleboarders.
But detectives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said the victim appeared to have died from a gunshot wound over the course of the day, likely in the mid-1970s or early 1980s based on clothing and footwear.
At the time, even as local authorities tried to downplay the influence of organized crime syndicates, mobsters from Midwestern cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kansas City, Mo., had immense power around Las Vegas. Today, the role of the Mafia in Las Vegas is considered insignificant, but nostalgia for the made men era has emerged as a major money maker.
For a price of $119.95, visitors can take a “crowd tour” of sites where a car bombing and other underworld activity took place. At the downtown Mob Museum, beer-in-hand tourists take in exhibits chronicling the city’s blood-stained past.
“This is the city that denied any affiliation with the Mafia,” said John L. Smith, 62, a prominent author and columnist whose family has lived in Nevada since 1880. “Now it’s a city putting it on billboards.”
As the museum makes clear, barrels were not unheard of among the mafia’s methods of disposing of the body. In 1976, John Roselli, a crime figure with ties to Las Vegas, was found dead in a Biscayne Bay outside Miami. And Mr. Smith said in a column in The Nevada Independent that the Lake Mead discovery also brought back memories of a cold case involving Johnny Pappas, a Chicagoan who went missing in Las Vegas in 1976.
Pappas, whose underworld associations were spotted when he disappeared, ran a Lake Mead resort, 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,” said Mr. Smith.
Other theories about the bodies abound as well. David Kohlmeier, a retired police officer turned podcaster and social media personality, is offering a $5,000 reward to divers who find other remains in Lake Mead. The areas where the two bodies were found could have been dump sites linked to other crimes, he said. “I think this had something to do with gangs in some way, but that could mean it was a biker gang,” said Mr Kohlmeier.
Regardless, Travis Heggie, a former public risk management specialist for the US National Park Service, said Lake Mead stood out among national recreation areas and parks because of its possible connection to criminal activity — along with places like Big Bend National Park on the border with Mexico.
“The criminal element of Las Vegas just spills over into Lake Mead,” said Mr. Heggie, who has long been fascinated by what lies in the depths of the reservoir. Even if barrels of bodies don’t turn up anymore, he said, “there will be a lot of guns and a lot of knives.”
The lake also guards the wreckage of a B-29 Superfortress – one of the largest aircraft used in World War II – that crashed into its waters in 1948, as well as a beautiful complex of ancestral Pueblo ruins, including a structure with more than 100 rooms.
Hikers can already head to St. Thomas, a once-flooded Mormon settlement that has resurfaced in Lake Mead in the form of sun-bleached ruins as the drought continues.
While Lake Mead has long seen accidents and foul play, Michael Green, 57, a historian who grew up in Las Vegas, noted that mafia figures often preferred to carry out execution-style murders outside the city, in attempts to protect the gambling industry from bad publicity.
In an infamous cold case, the influential president of the Riviera hotel, Gus Greenbaum, and his wife, Bess, were shot and killed in their Phoenix home after suspicions surfaced that he had stolen from fellow investors.
mr. Green, whose father was a casino dealer credited with being fired by Lefty Rosenthal, the inspiration for the mobster portrayed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film, “Casino,” has his own theory about the body in the barrel.
It centers on Jay Vandermark, a slot machine supervisor at the Stardust casino who was involved in a scheme to skim off the proceeds of slot machines. Vandermark, believed to have pocketed money from his mob bosses, went missing in 1976.
“I don’t think they ever found the body,” said Mr. Green.