Why Dead Bodies Are Surfacing At A Las Vegas Lake

If climate change remains unabated, water access in certain parts of the world will be greatly diminished, as National Geographic explains. That fact is especially true in the Desert Southwest region of the U.S. In this area, large numbers of permanent residents and tourists in cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada get their water from the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers (via Desert USA). Due to drought, though, water levels in these dammed natural waterways and man-made reservoirs are now lower than ever.

More than just a crisis in adequate water supply is created as water levels drop quickly in this part of the country; the remains of several dead bodies have also turned up in one well-known lake near Las Vegas. Nevada officials have now revealed important details about what might have happened when these people died, according to CNN. The story behind these human remains touches on the early days of Sin City, and according to sources close to the situation, the bodies so far uncovered are likely just the beginning (via the New York Post).

What is Lake Mead?

The human remains so far uncovered have been in Lake Mead, one of the largest man-made lakes on the planet. The Lake Mead reservoir was formed when the Colorado River was dammed in the 1930s by the Hoover Dam. The large and expansive Lake Mead National Recreation Area was also established at that same time. Just 50 miles from Las Vegas, Lake Mead is now a major tourist destination, and that tourist business is now gravely threatened by climate change (via Britannica).

More important than lost tourist dollars, though, is the fact that Lake Mead supplies drinking water and contributes hydro power for some 25 million people. Since 1999, epic drought combined with swiftly growing populations in nearby urban centers has strained water levels. In 2022, water in Lake Mead reached its lowest point yet, and as a result, low-level pumps were activated for the first time. To help address this issue, unprecedented steps were taken by local authorities to prevent the water from lowering any further, according to CNN.

How far have water levels dropped at Lake Mead?

Water at Lake Mead is currently lower than anytime since 1937, according to USA Today. In 2021, Lake Mead was measured at an elevation 1,080 feet, which triggered a water shortage declaration. Since then, the level of water has dropped an additional 25 feet in just one year. As recently as the year 2000, both Lake Mead and Lake Powell — another nearby reservoir which local populations rely on for water and power — were considered full. They're now at 30% capacity. Similar symptoms of this so-called mega-drought are felt all across the region.

Speaking to USA Today, senior water and climate research scientist for the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, Brad Udall, lays much of the blame for that water crisis on climate change. "Not every year is warmer, not every year is drier, but that is the overall trend ... It's a serious problem. It's going to have to be dealt with and it's going to be really painful," Udall said. The drought the Desert Southwest currently faces is the worst since the year 800, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the British journal Nature Climate Change (via USA Today).

How was the first body uncovered?

The first body to be uncovered by the swiftly declining water levels at Lake Mead was in a barrel. The unidentified male authorities call the "Hemenway Harbor Doe" had been shot sometime in the 1970s or the 1980s, based on his clothing. The remains were reported by boaters on Lake Mead. Given the gunshot wound, the cause of death was believed to be homicide, as The Telegraph reports. That theory has now been confirmed by Clark County Coroner Melanie Rouse, as CNN goes on to note. 

As of this report, the corpse has not been identified, but according CNN, efforts are underway to extract a viable DNA sample which could then be sent to the FBI. Though the reservoir is likely filled with barrels and other kinds of debris dating back to the time it was constructed, if not earlier, rewards were offered for more tips and clues after the first barrel was spotted (per the New York Post). Not all bodies uncovered will have died from homicide. Quite likely, some may have died by drowning, and for these reasons, several missing persons cold cases in the Las Vegas area are now reopened.

How many more bodies might there be?

More human remains were discovered at Lake Mead not long after the first body, the "Hemenway Harbor Doe," was recovered. The second discovery came about one week later at Calville Bay on Lake Mead, when what at first appeared to be animal remains were found. Those remains were later determined to be human, and are now confirmed to have belonged to a person between the ages of 23 and 37 years old, according to CNN. As of this report, the Calville Bay corpse cause of death remains undetermined but foul play is not suspected (via CNN).

As far as what else might be found at Lake Mead, Las Vegas-based TV and podcast host David Kohlmeier said on his program "The Problem Solver" (via The Telegraph), "We do believe there are others out there ... We believe there are cold cases that are out there or missing people in general. Since the water is so low right now there's a chance in history to recover bodies." According to recent statistics from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, more than 200 adults are reported missing from Vegas each month.

The third and final remains discovered on Swim Beach at Lake Mead were only partial. Efforts are underway to extract viable DNA samples, as CNN goes on to note.

The bodies found could be linked to the Las Vegas Mob

Whenever dead bodies and Las Vegas show up in the same sentence, with certain remains dating back decades, some suspect those killings might be mob related. In the case of the first man found dead in a barrel at Lake Mead, the "Hemenway Harbor Doe," there's actual evidence that may be the case. Or as Lieutenant Jason Johansson of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police homicide unit put it, speaking with CNN, "Anytime you have a body in a barrel, clearly there was somebody else involved." As of this report, though, mob links remain unconfirmed, according to CNN.

On that note, vice president of The Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Geoff Schumacher, said (via the New York Post) that although many bodies recovered from Lake Mead will likely be drowning victims, a body stuffed in a barrel "has a signature of a mob hit." Agreeing with Schumacher, University of Nevada Las Vegas history professor Michael Green added (via New York Post) that while he anticipates Lake Mead discoveries won't solve the mystery of who killed Bugsy Siegel, a 1940s-era Las Vegas mobster whose assassin was never caught (via Britannica), Green "would be willing to bet there are going to be a few more bodies." All remains uncovered so far at Lake Mead have undergone toxicology tests to help determine their cause of death (per CNN).