Day 6

Human remains have surfaced at Lake Mead. Some wonder if they're long-lost mob hits

As water levels recede in Nevada’s Lake Mead, human remains have been discovered, and people are wondering where — or when — they came from.

The human-made reservoir near Las Vegas is at its driest point in history, revealing long-submerged remains

A formerly sunken boat sits high and dry along the shoreline of Lake Mead in Nevada. Human remains of two people have been found in the human-made reservoir that feeds Las Vegas and the surrounding area. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

As water levels recede in Nevada's Lake Mead, human remains have been discovered, and people are wondering where — or when — they came from.

The human-made reservoir that feeds Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam has hit record lows amid a decades-long drought intensified by climate change.

Earlier this month, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police announced human remains were discovered in a long-submerged barrel. 

A second body was discovered on the reservoir's banks six days later by two paddleboarders.

Theories have since emerged about where the bodies came from. Given the mafia's long history on the Las Vegas strip, there's speculation the remains could have ties to the mob.

"There are certainly cold cases out there, whether they involve mobsters who disappeared or just average citizens who were unfortunate victims and their bodies were never found," said Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"The lake would strike people as a logical place to get rid of a body."

Police have said they do not suspect foul play in the discovery of the body found by paddleboarders, the New York Times reported

Personal effects found in the barrel — which resembles an industrial storage drum, according to Reuters — suggest the individual was killed sometime between the mid-1970s and early 1980s from a gunshot wound, police said.

Lake Mead, and the reservoirs that surround it, continue to dry as the result of drought conditions that have left the region at its driest point in more than more than 1,000 years

The reservoir provides water to Las Vegas and the surrounding area, as well as Arizona and California. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that millions of California residents will be required to restrict water usage beginning in June.

As Lake Mead's water level drops due to ongoing and severe drought conditions, long-submerged debris is emerging on the expanding shoreline. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

'Legend or folklore,' says historian

It's no secret that the mafia once ruled the Vegas strip, says Green, who is also on the board of the city's Mob Museum. Several of Sin City's earliest hotels had ties to the mob.

"The guys who built the hotel casinos, they had pasts and they were checkered and even crooked and they had mugshots, but they were essentially business people," he said.

"They were people who'd proved in the mob that they were very good at numbers or entertainment booking or that sort of thing."

But Green doesn't believe that means the bodies that have been uncovered as the shoreline expands are necessarily the victims of gangsters.

Some of the highest profile killings at the hands of the Las Vegas mafia didn't take place in the city. Bugsy Siegel, who helped finance the Flamingo Hotel, was killed at his partner's home in Beverly Hills by an unknown person, Green recalled. 

Gus Greenbaum, who later ran the same hotel, was killed at his home in Phoenix while Tony Spilotro, who "ruled" the Vegas streets, was killed in Chicago and buried in an Indiana cornfield, Green added.

"It meant that Las Vegas wasn't being overrun with law enforcement officials looking for a dead body or investigating a murder, so I think they were kind of careful about that," he said.

"It isn't to say they might not have buried people out there, but frankly, it had more to do with legend or folklore."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.