Secrets below the surface: The investigation into the body found in a barrel at Lake Mead

Las Vegas police believe body in barrel at Lake Mead could date back to '70s
Las Vegas police believe body in barrel at Lake Mead could date back to '70s
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 11:12 PM MST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - It’s over 100 miles long and at its depths more than 1,000 feet, Lake Mead leaves decades of secrets below its surface.

One of the most disturbing was discovered in early May.

“You hear stories, but you don’t expect to see that on a day at the lake,” witness Daniel Ruiz said.

It was a Sunday afternoon not far from the launch ramp at Hemenway Harbor. As the lake levels dropped, a decaying barrel emerged onto the shore. Inside were human remains.

One witness said you could still see the persons jeans with his shirt tucked in and a belt around his waist.

“Had the water level not receded so far, we never make the discovery,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Lt. Ray Spencer said.

40-years ago where the barrel sat was roughly 100 feet under water and several hundred yards from shore.

Investigators said they know exactly how the crime was committed.

“Someone had to have a boat, and someone had to put someone in the barrel and push them off the boat,” LT. Spencer said.

The Clark County Coroner determined the man died by gunshot wound, and his shoes lead detectives to believe the murder took place in the late 70s or early 80s.

That is where the mystery begins.

“It was a time where the mob was on the front page almost every day,” Mob Museum VP of Exhibits Geoff Schumacher said. “I think it has the signature of a mob hit.”

Schumacher said stuffing a murder victim’s body in a barrel was a common tactic in the mob across the country, and there are even reminders of that inside the Las Vegas museum.

That includes possibly the most famous case - the death of a mobster Johnny Roselli.

“In 1976 he went missing,” Schumacher said. “Later, he was found in a barrel bobbing in the bay outside of Miami.”

Spencer said his team will investigate whether the murder could have ties to organized crime if they’re able to extract DNA from the remains.

“If you notice I’m saying if, because it will be a very challenging part of this investigation,” Lt. Spencer said.

The bones are in the hands of the Clark County Coroners Office.

“When you have remains that have been exposed to the elements, it makes it incredibly challenging to get an ID,” Clark County Coroner Melanie Rouse said.

However, a lab in Texas that specializes in advanced DNA testing using genealogical data believes they have the resources to help.

“I think we’re extremely suited,” Othram Chief Development Officer Kristen Mittelman said. “I think we’ve proven before we can work with such remains and make an identification.”

Othram Labs has played crucial roles in Las Vegas cold cases before. With the funding of local philanthropist Justin Woo and his new non-profit the Vegas Justice League, Othram has helped Metro solve several cold cases. That includes Stephanie Isaacson’s 1989 murder, which Othram said sets the world record for the smallest amount of perpetrator DNA recovered to make a match with just .12 nanograms.

“That’s the equivalent of about 15 human cells,” Mittelman said. “If I touch my hand that’s left hundreds of cells. That should tell you how little DNA that was, and we were able to make a positive ID.”

Mittelman said they’ve solved multiple cases with remains found in bodies of water decades earlier.

With the lowering lake levels police said more bodies will likely be found. Less than two weeks after the body in barrel discovery, North of Hemenway Harbor at Callville Bay, more remains were found. However, police said there are no sign of foul play.

“It’s also possible this isn’t a mob case, and this person is kind of a copycat on the mob motif. There are stories about serial killers who bury people in barrels. Barrels seem to figure very prominently in all kinds of different murders,” Schumacher said

Authorities believe it will take months to potentially make an ID, but it’s already sparked a new awareness for future discoveries.