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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Mafia historians zeroing in on identity of body found in Lake Mead


Mob experts have speculated on the identify of a body found May 1 in a barrel in the receding waters of Lake Mead. Photo by ABC News

What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what (or who) is buried at the bottom of Lake Mead might come back to haunt you.

According to a story in the Daily Mail, two mafia experts who have authored books on organized crime in Las Vegas, believe they know the identification of the person found in a barrel in the receding waters of Lake Mead. Clad in what police say is 1970s fashion from Kmart, the unidentified person was shot in the head, stuffed in a barrel and sent to what once was the bottom of Lake Mead more than 40 years ago. Boaters on the lake found the body in the rusted and decomposing barrel on May 1. It was the first of two such discoveries in the shrinking lake.

Granted, there is a slim golf connection to the Lake Mead story. The Colorado River that created the lake nearly a century ago, is a water source for many desert golf courses hundreds of miles away. We figured a follow-up was warranted since the original story has been read more than 600 times.

According to Geoff Schumacher, vice president of a Las Vegas-based mob museum and author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas, and Jeff Burbank, author of Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour and Greed, the man in the barrel probably is Jay Vandermark, William Crespo or Johnny Pappas, all of whom had ties to organized crime in Las Vegas. All three men were associated with Argent Corp., which owned several hotel and casino operations in Las Vegas as a front for the mob.

Vandermark ran the slot machine operation for the mafia at the old Stardust Resort and Casino. He fled the city in 1976 after Nevada Game Control Board raided the Stardust and uncovered a skimming ring Vandermark ran in the casino that netted $7 million for the mob. It is believed that he was murdered by the mob after it was discovered he kept an additional $3 million in ill-gotten gains for himself.

Crespo was arrested at the Las Vegas airport in 1982 while trying to smuggle $400,000 in cocaine into the country. He eventually became a government informant to avoid a prison sentence, and disappeared in 1983 after his testimony before a grand jury led to the indictments of 10 people associated with the Vegas mafia. His timeline, however, makes it unlikely that he is the person who was in the barrel, the authors said.


Mafia historians say the murder of a victim found in a barrel in Lake Mead fits the M.O. of former Vegas mobster Tony Spilotro (center in handcuffs). Photo by Las Vegas Review-Journal

The most likely candidate sentenced by the mob to sleep with the fishes was Pappas. He managed the Echo Bay Resort on Lake Mead, which was financed by Argent through the mob-controlled Teamsters Central States Pension fund.

Schumacher and Burbank also say the gangland-style hit that included a .22 caliber slug to the head fits a pattern that was the M.O. of Tony Spilotro, who ran the mob in Vegas for the Chicago Outfit. Spilotro, who himself was murdered by the Chicago mob in 1986, was the real-life inspiration for Joe Pesci's role of Nicky Santoro in "Casino."

Authorities believe the barrel was dumped between the mid-1970s to early '80s in what then was more than 100 feet of water, hundreds of yards from shore. Lake levels have dropped nearly 200 feet since then and are expected to drop by an additional 30-plus feet in the next two years. It was the first of two such discoveries, the second coming May 7, when visitors to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area found human skeletal remains. Las Vegas Police and the Clark County Coroner are investigating both incidents and have yet to positively ID either find.

Police also believe there will be more reminders of the ties between Las Vegas and the mob as lake levels continue to drop.

"It's going to be a very difficult case," Las Vegas Metro police homicide Lt. Ray Spencer told KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. "I would say there is a very good chance as the water level drops that we are going to find additional human remains."

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