The first body was discovered in May. A man’s skeletal remains were found in a rusting metal barrel on the muddy shore of Lake Mead. Police said he was shot in the head, mob-style, sometime in the 1970s or 1980s.
Since then, the bodies have kept coming from America’s largest reservoir, which is revealing its decades-old secrets.
Recently, a new group of human remains proved the fourth such find.
The waters of the 112-mile-long lake on the Nevada-Arizona border are retreating after a drought exacerbated by heavy water use by surrounding states.
Treasure hunters have flocked to the area, drawn by reports of what may be revealed: including several ghost towns, an ancient Native American “lost city”, a crashed World War II B-29 Superfortress bomber and the buried loot of one notorious gangsters.
The lake is notable for being only 20 miles from Las Vegas at its closest point. So perhaps it’s not surprising that while other drying reservoirs in America’s parched Southwest have revealed wonders like a fossilized mastodon skull and ancient Native American dwellings, the one closest to Sin City holds even more gruesome surprises.
The waters of Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border are retreating after a drought. In May, the skeletal remains of a man were found in a rusting metal barrel on the shore
In its early years, the casino city was so tightly controlled by the Chicago mafia — known as the Outfit — and other Midwestern clans that every other person there allegedly claimed affiliation with the mob. And with so much money to be made by the unscrupulous – not to mention the potential to rip one another off – there were bound to be many victims.
Although Lake Mead was obviously attractive as a site to clean up these deaths, local mafia pundits have long argued that mobsters preferred burying bodies in the Nevada desert, fearing that bodies floating in the reservoir would alert and discourage tourists to visit Vegas .
Recent discoveries, particularly the unfortunate man in the barrel, suggest the assessment may have gone too far.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Travis Heggie, a former National Park Service official who investigated deaths in the Lake Mead recreation area. “I expect all sorts of criminal things to come up – and I mean a lot.”
Even though there aren’t any more bodies in barrels, he expects they’ll find an arsenal of guns and knives – and whatever else the gangsters used to kill each other and then had to throw away.
Formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, the 86-year-old reservoir supplies drinking water to California, Arizona, Nevada and parts of Mexico. It is currently filled to less than 30 percent of its capacity.
Although Lake Mead is obviously attractive as a place to dump these dead bodies, local mafia pundits have long argued that gangsters prefer to bury bodies in the Nevada desert (pictured: another body found at Lake Mead was found).
Though the lake is in a U.S. national park (so anything found there technically belongs to the federal government), two ex-cops have offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who uncovers more sunken barrels.
Some of them are believed to contain the missing loot of Bugsy Siegel, who made a fortune as one of Sin City’s early criminal overlords. He is rumored to have hidden his earnings in several barrels that were sent to the bottom of Lake Mead shortly before his assassination in 1947.
But since hiding victims in barrels has been a popular technique among criminals since the mid-1800s, they might find a few more skeletons before finding Bugsy’s treasure.
After the body was found in the barrel May 1 near an area known as Swim Beach, the victim’s shoes allowed authorities to roughly date the death. A week later, while paddling, two sisters found the half-buried remains of a person between the ages of 23 and 37.
At first they thought it was sheep bones. “It wasn’t until I saw the jawbone with a silver filling that I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s a human!’ and started freaking out,” said one of the girls.
The local coroner said these second remains were more skeletal than the first, which still contained organ tissue. The cause of death remains unknown.
On July 25, a third set of remains was discovered at Swim Beach, trapped in mud at the waterline. A fourth set was found at Swim Beach two weeks ago.
Experts say it’s too early to know the identity and cause of death of the latter finds, but staff at Las Vegas’ Mob Museum have a clever idea as to who ended up in the barrel. They believe he is Johnny Pappas, who worked in the casino industry but had “connections” to the mafia. He worked for Argent Corporation, a front company for gangsters who owned four major Las Vegas casinos, from which they “siphoned off” profits (underreported earnings to the government and pocketed the rest).
Pappas, a Greek-American, had a boat on Lake Mead and disappeared one night in 1976 after telling his wife he was going to a restaurant to meet two men interested in buying the boat . Three days later, his car was discovered in a casino parking lot with the keys in the ignition.
The man suspected of killing him was Tony Spilotro, a Chicago “enforcer” and Las Vegas mafia captain. The prolific hitman was considered a suspect in nearly 20 mob-related murders and disappearances from 1975 to 1977.
A body found at Swim Beach is believed to have been placed there by Tony Spilotro, who inspired the character of mafia psychopath Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino. Pesci is upstairs with Sharon Stone Scene from the film pictured
Director Martin Scorsese based his lead character Nicky Santoro on Spilotro in his hit 1995 film Casino. Spilotro in a 1974 mugshot (above)
According to the Mob Museum, his preferred method of execution was a headshot from a .22 pistol fitted with a silencer.
Spilotro inspired the character of mob psychopath Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino, Hollywood’s greatest portrayal of Las Vegas’ mafia past.
Given that Sin City was described as “a bloodbath” in the 1970s – it has been calculated that there were more gang killings in Las Vegas between 1971 and 1974 than in the previous 25 years combined – there are many more possible candidates for the man in the barrel. One theory has it that the murder was carried out by a motorcycle gang trying to infiltrate the mob’s turf.
Another idea is that the victim could be George Vandermark, also a mob casino manager who disappeared after allegedly siphoning up to $15 million in coins from lucrative slot machines at Argent Corporation casinos.
Vandermark, who allegedly defrauded not only the US Treasury official but also his mob bosses, was last seen in an Arizona hotel in 1976. His son, who was reportedly in contact with him after his disappearance, was found murdered the following year.
Authorities claimed Vandermark fled to Costa Rica, although a mob informant insisted he was shot and buried in the Arizona desert. His body was never found.
Treasure hunters have flocked to Lake Mead (pictured), drawn by reports of what may be revealed: including several ghost towns, an ancient Native American ‘lost city’ and a crashed World War II B-29 Superfortress bomber
Another possibility is that the keg victim is a cocaine dealer named William Crespo, who “tipped over” and became a government witness, only to disappear in 1983 before he was due to testify against an Argent executive and six of his associates.
There are even candidates the Mob Museum has never heard of – such as a mobster named Bobbi Eugene Shaw who went missing in 1977. His sister, Barbara Brock, said police contacted her and her nephew in May to collect family DNA samples for testing for a game. “I know he’s gone, but if I knew for sure it would make me feel better,” she said.
And though some think burying a body in the endless wasteland surrounding Las Vegas couldn’t be easier, historians have said gangsters sometimes favored a barrel as a more dramatic gesture. In 1976, a Vegas mobster was found dead in a floating barrel in far away Biscayne Bay, Florida.
Whoever is the last barrel occupant, it almost certainly won’t be the last grisly revelation from Lake Mead.