Las Vegas police say that receding water in Lake Mead recently led them to discover a metal barrel containing a corpse, a grim find they believe will not be the last as water continues to dry up due to the region’s severe drought.
Las Vegas Metro Police homicide Lieutenant Ray Spencer said in a news conference several days later that police believed the body was that of a man who had died of a gunshot wound, probably in the mid-to-late 1970s or early 1980s, judging by the clothes and shoes he was wearing.
The body was initially discovered by boaters who found the barrel stuck in the mud.
“We heard a woman scream from the side of the beach and then my husband went over to obviously see what was wrong, and then he realized there was a body in a barrel,” witness Shawna Hollister told 8 News Now. “My husband walked over and found the body. His shirt and belt were the only thing we could see over his decomposing bones.”
Police said the body was intact when it was dropped in the lake.
The next step for police is to identify the victim, which will be a painstaking task as there were no DNA databases in the ’70s or ’80s that could help to form leads. The body has since been sent to the Clark County coroner’s office to attempt to identify the remains.
“It’s going to take an extensive amount of work,” Spencer said. “It’s going to be a very difficult case. I would say there is a very good chance as the water level drops that we are going to find additional human remains.”
Spencer said his team also reached out to UNLV experts to examine growth on the barrel to discover when it entered the lake.
According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a “megadrought” in the region is responsible for the drying lake. Experts say this period is the driest it has been in over a thousand years, and is likely caused or exacerbated by climate change.
Police expect that more bodies will be uncovered as water levels continue to recede.
“I think anybody can understand there are probably more bodies that have been dumped in Lake Mead, it’s just a matter of, are we able to recover those?” Spencer said, adding that rangers with the National Park Service commonly find one or two bodies in the lake each year.
In the 1980s, the section of the lake where the barrel was found would have been covered by dozens of feet of water. Lake Mead has recently dropped to 1,056 feet in elevation of late (lake levels are measured in altitude above sea level rather than depth). At its highest levels, the lake has been nearly 200 feet higher than it is at present.
“It’s really odd in the sense that had the lake never receded, we would never have discovered the body,” Spencer said.
Police are currently speculating that the killing may have been mafia-related, as Las Vegas casinos in that era were controlled by the Mob.