LAS VEGAS — It’s the mob guy who went missing after skimming from the Stardust casino. No, it’s the lake resort manager hunted down by the Chicago Outfit. Could it be the work of a biker gang muscling in on Mafia turf? Or maybe someone just fell off a boat after one too many.
Ever since the bodies started turning up this month in Lake Mead — the first in a barrel, the next half-buried in sand, both exposed by plunging water levels — theories in Las Vegas are flourishing about who they are, how they wound up in the country’s largest man-made reservoir, and what might surface next.
Lynette Melvin found the second body with her sister while paddle boarding. At first they thought they had stumbled onto bones of a bighorn sheep. “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,” Ms. Melvin, 30, said.
The discovery of human remains is always a source of tragedy and potential pain for loved ones — especially when they show signs of a violent end. But in Las Vegas, a town where the seedy underbelly is part of the draw, macabre fascination and amateur sleuthing have quickly followed.
more than a thousand years, as drought-starved bodies of water yield one surprise after another.
At Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, a bachelor party stumbled across a fossilized mastodon skull that is millions of years old. In Utah last year, the receding waters of Lake Powell revealed a car that had plunged 600 feet off a cliff, killing the driver. And as Lake Powell dries up, archaeologists are getting a chance to study newly emerged Indigenous dwellings.
delay releases from the Colorado River into Lake Mead, about 30 miles east of Las Vegas, dwindling it even more.
Jennifer Byrnes, a forensic anthropologist who consults with the coroner’s office in Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, said warming temperatures could reshape her profession. Long-term drought and other changes to the landscape make more grim discoveries possible, and require planning for mass casualty events like deadly heat waves, storms and wildfires.
“Climate change is directly going to affect our field in the coming years,” said Dr. Byrnes, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In some instances, that means help putting down old cases. After a pickup truck with a female body inside was found in a receding lake in Texas in 2014, officials used dental records to identify a woman who had been missing since 1979.
Still, Dr. Byrnes said, human remains found in places like Lake Mead can be especially challenging. The reservoir is so large that its currents can circulate a body far from where it drowned or was dumped, and cause it to break apart. A body in a container like a barrel, she said, could decompose faster than one exposed to water. And scavengers like water bugs, crabs, fish and birds can complicate efforts to determine identities and causes of death.
None of that has stopped amateur sleuths from poring over clues in Las Vegas’s hottest new cold cases. So far, police investigators have said they do not expect foul play in connection with the body found by the paddle boarders.