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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Receding water levels in Lake Mead provide a glimpse into the sordid history of Las Vegas


Boaters on Lake Mead recently discovered human remains inside this barrel that was exposed by receding water levels. Police say the victim was dumped in the lake between the mid-1970s to the early '80s. Photo by KVVU-TV

In what is becoming a real-life crime drama playing out before our eyes, the receding water level in the country's largest reservoir that also is a major irrigation source for dozens of desert golf courses, is providing a glimpse into the dark side of the history of Las Vegas. That peek behind the curtain no doubt is making aging mobsters nervous and is leading many of the tens of millions of people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water to reach out to the Culligan Man.

On two occasions in May, historically low levels in Lake Mead have uncovered the once-hidden remains of at least two people. The latest discovery was made less than a week after boaters reported the remains of a person police say likely was murdered 40-50 years ago. Investigations into both cases are ongoing by Las Vegas Police and the Clark County Coroner's Office, and both have all the makings of a Hollywood mob flick.

On May 7, the National Park Service was alerted by a Lake Mead Recreation Area visitor who discovered human skeletal remains in the western section of the lake about 30 miles east of Las Vegas. 

A similar discovery was made May 1 when a partially decomposed body was discovered in a barrel exposed by receding water levels. Las Vegas PD homicide detectives said evidence indicates that the victim had been shot before being stuffed into the barrel and subsequently sent to what then was the bottom of the lake. Based on still-intact pieces of what must be disco-era clothing and footwear, police say the crime occurred somewhere between the mid-1970s to the early '80s.

There's no telling what we'll find in Lake Mead. It's not a bad place to dump a body.

Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is an attorney whose former client list includes Sin City mobsters like Anthony Spilotro who ran the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang in Las Vegas for the Chicago mob in the 1970s and '80s before being beaten to death by members of the Outfit in the basement of a suburban Chicago home in 1986, proving there is no honor among thieves. Spilotro also was the inspiration for the character Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, in the 1995 film "Casino." Goodman told CBS News that many of his living former clients are growing increasingly uneasy about what receding water levels in the lake might eventually expose.

"There's no telling what we'll find in Lake Mead," Goodman told CBS. "It's not a bad place to dump a body."

Lake Mead was formed in 1936 with the opening of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River along the Nevada-Arizona border. The past 20 years in the West have been defined by severe drought, putting more strain than ever on the country's largest reservoir that provides drinking water to 40 million people in parts of six states and irrigation water to many golf courses, including dozens in California's Coachella Valley. To that end, water levels in Lake Mead have been on a steady decline. The lake level has dropped 170 feet since 1983, and is expected to drop another 34 feet in the next two years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Water levels today are about half of what they were in 2000, marking the lowest volume of water in Lake Mead since 1937, the year after Hoover Dam opened, leaving intakes valves exposed and many scientists believing there is no hope it can ever be refilled.

That's the bad news, but this story also has a silver lining. 

Although the low levels in Lake Mead symbolize water shortages throughout the region, these recent discoveries might help the Las Vegas PD solve some cold missing-persons cases, some of which might date to the Ford Administration, or even earlier.

Police indeed are looking back some 40 years at missing persons cases and said they believe even more bodies will be discovered as water levels in the lake continue to fall.

Las Vegas PD and the Clark County Coroner said the identification of the victims will be released if and when they are available.

Geoff Schumacher, vice president of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, which is housed in the old Las Vegas Post Office Building, said he too believes more bodies will be found in the shrinking lake.

"I think a lot of these individuals will likely have been drowning victims," Schumacher told CBS News. "But a barrel has a signature of a mob hit. Stuffing a body in a barrel. Sometimes they would dump it in the water."

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