Climate change is doing what US law enforcement has never been able to do in close to half a century – revealing the last resting places of victims of murder, most likely carried out by organised crime syndicates.
The retreating waters of a lake close to Las Vegas, known as ‘Sin City’ in the 1970s, have revealed human remains which experts say could be linked to historic hits by Mafia gunmen.
The gruesome findings in Lake Mead, Nevada, currently down to 27 per cent of its capacity, include the skeletal remains of a man discovered inside a rusting metal barrel, a popular means of disposing of the bodies of those killed by criminal gangs.
Speaking after the discovery, Lt Raymond Spencer of Las Vegas Metro Police said: ‘There is a very good chance as the water level drops that we are going to find additional human remains.’
The level of the lake —a source of water for more than 30 million people and the largest reservoir in the USA —is dropping because of the declining flow of the Colorado River and increasing evaporation, both caused by global warming.
It is around 20 miles from Las Vegas which was once controlled by the Chicago Mafia, known as ‘The Outfit’.
After the body in the barrel was found near an area known as Swim Beach on May 1, one week later, sisters Lynette and Lindsey Melvin found the half-buried remains of someone aged between 23 and 37 while paddleboarding.
The pair initially thought they were the remains of a bighorn sheep, Lynette told local news station KLAS-TV.
‘For the longest time I was in disbelief, like I did not think that we actually found human remains,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t until I saw the jawbone with a silver filling that I was like, ‘Whoa, this is human,’ and started to freak out.’
On July 25, a third set of remains were discovered at Swim Beach encased in mud at the waterline. A fourth set were found in the same location earlier this month.
Mafia Hits at Lake Mead
Experts on the city’s criminal history at Las Vegas’s ‘Mob Museum’ – officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement – believe the man in the barrel was Johnny Pappas. He worked for the Argent Corporation, a front company for mobsters who owned Las Vegas casinos from which they declared just a fraction of the takings and kept the rest – defrauding the taxman.
Pappas kept 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 who were interested in buying his vessel. Three days later, his car was discovered with keys in the ignition in a casino car park.
Detectives with the Las Vegas police said the victim appeared to have died from a gunshot wound, likely in the mid-1970s or early 1980s based on clothing and footwear.
One body found at Swim Beach is believed by museum staff to have been put there by Anthony Spilotro, whose brutal death inspired the 1995 Martin Scorsese film Casino and in which his character Nicky Santoro, was played by Joe Pesci. His favoured method of execution was a silenced .22 handgun shot to the head.
Known as ‘Tony the Ant’ Spilotro organised Mafia operations in four casinos, The Stardust, The Fremont, The Hacienda, and The Marina.
On June 22, 1986, gangster Spilotro and his hoodlum brother Michael were found buried in their shorts in an Indiana cornfield. It is considered one of the most the most infamous crime scenes in Chicago’s mob history.
Another theory from local historian Michael Green is that one victim could be George Vandermark, also a Mafia-linked casino manager, who disappeared after allegedly stealing $15 million in coins from slot machines at the Argent Corporation’s casinos.
Vandermark, who allegedly cheated not only the taxman but also his crime bosses, was last seen in an Arizona hotel in 1976.
‘This is just the tip of the iceberg,’ said Travis Heggie, a former National Park Service risk management official who has studied the deaths at Lake Mead Recreation Area. ‘I’m expecting all sorts of criminal things to show up — and I mean a lot.
‘The criminal element of Las Vegas simply spills over into Lake Mead, there’s going to be a lot of guns, and a lot of knives.’
David Kohlmeier, a retired police officer who is now a podcaster and social media personality, is offering a $5,000 reward to divers who find other remains in Lake Mead.
‘I think this [the discovery of the bodies] was gang-related in some way, but that could mean it was a motorcycle gang,’ he said.
The lake also contains the wreckage of a B29 bomber that crashed into its waters in 1948, as well as a complex of Native American Pueblo ruins, including one structure with more than 100 rooms.
And it could be the key to a lost fortune. Mafia boss Bugsy Siegel is believed to have hidden his ill-gotten gains into metal cannisters and sunk them into the water, just before he was shot to death in 1947.