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Bodies found in drought-depleted Lake Mead could be linked to gangsters, say mob experts

Water levels at Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, are dropping to historically low levels amid the megadrought affecting the American West. Long-hidden bodies are emerging that could unlock murderous secrets of the mob, writes Sheila Flynn

Friday 20 May 2022 03:38 BST
Pictures of the Week-North America-Photo Gallery
Pictures of the Week-North America-Photo Gallery (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

First he heard about the body in the barrel.

Next he heard that it was murder.

And then Geoffrey Schumacher – along with fellow gangster historians and enthusiasts learning the news coming out of a shrinking Lake Mead – thought of one thing: the mob.

“This topic is on the lips of everybody in this town,” Mr Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs at Las Vegas’ Mob Museum, tells The Independent. “Anywhere I go – especially me – people want to talk about it and speculate about it.

“There’s something about solving an old mystery that appeals to people. And it hearkens back to what some people look back at as a golden era for Las Vegas: ‘When the mob ran it,’ that’s the way they say it ... It combines nostalgia with wanting to solve a mystery, and it’s on everybody’s minds here,” he says.

The buzz began when boaters enjoying Lake Mead, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, discovered the barrel on 1 May near Hemenway Harbor at the reservoir on the Colorado River.

Water levels have dropped so much that the uppermost water intake at Lake Mead became visible at the end of last month. The American West is suffering from a two-decade megadrought that is being exacerbated by the climate crisis.

The reservoir on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam has become so depleted that Las Vegas is now pumping water from deeper within Lake Mead, which also stretches into Arizona.

And as the lake disappears, some of its secrets are surfacing – literally. And some of those could possibly solve longtime mob mysteries, Mr Schumacher and others knowledgeable about mob activities believe.

The body in the barrel, which police have ruled a victim of homicide, bears hallmarks of a mob hit, the museum vice president says.

Lake Mead Human Remains (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“There’s a couple of reasons for that,” Mr Schumacher tells The Independent. “One, this is Las Vegas – and when you normally think about mob murder at the time period police determined this was, the 70s, early 80s, this was a very violent era in Las Vegas, when it comes to the mob. And there were a lot of murders, a lot of people who went missing – and there were bodies found in the desert.

“This was unusual for Las Vegas, to pull a murder victim out of Lake Mead, but then the other piece of it is the body was buried in the lake in a barrel. And for whatever reason, there’s a long history of the mob using this technique to get rid of bodies.

“They dump them, they put them in barrels and put them underground, put them in barrels and dumped them in the ocean or a river or a lake. This goes back to the late 1800s. It’s just something that has been a thing.”

The theory that the body in the barrel was a mob victim also raises a new, intriguing question: Who could it be?

Mr Schumacher’s been digging.

“The first name that was on everybody’s lips ... was Jay Vandermark,” he tells The Independent. “Jay Vandermark was a fairly important figure in the Stardust hotel in the 1970s, and he was a slot machine manager, And why that was significant was that he was employed by Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal ... [who] reported to the Chicago outfit.

“One of the ways they skimmed money from the casinos was by skimming coins off the top of the money made on the slot machines,” Mr Schumacher says. “Vandermark knew a lot about what was going on with the skimming and ... we know that he disappeared right around this time and that he most likely was the victim of a mob hit, because if the police caught up with him, he might be willing to talk.”

Jay Vandermark vanished in Phoenix in 1976 (Phoenix Police Department)

A hitman-turned-witness, however, testified in 2007 that Vandermark, who disappeared from Phoenix, was buried in the desert near there, Mr Schumacher says – so he’s doubtful that the slot machine manager is the body in the barrel.

He believes there are two other men who went missing around the same timeframe who are more likely possibilities.

One, William Crespo, was a “drug mule” who had “accepted immunity from the government to become an informant and a witness against the big drug ring,” Mr Scumacher says.

Crespo vanished in 1983 before that could happen and the case was dropped without his testimony, he adds.

Then there was Johnny Pappas, a casino employee “tied in with the mob” who disappeared in 1976; his car was found in the parking lot of Circus, Circus four days after he was last seen, and there’s been no sign of him since, Mr Schumacher says.

Pappas maanged a hotel at Lake Mead and was trying to sell a boat he had docked there at the time he went missing, he adds.

“It stands to reason that someone tied to the lake, as he was, could’ve ended up being dumped there,” Mr Schumacher says.

Even more speculation swirls about how many other bodies could be found in watery graves as lake levels drop. Most agree that there definitely will be more discovered, though not necessarily murder victims; the lake has been the site of many drownings over the years with bodies never found.

Mr Schumacher says more possible mob victims could surface, but he’s slightly dubious.– at least in the same section of the expansive lake.

“If you watch the movies or television shows about the mob in New York, they’re always dumping bodies in the East River,” he says. “My thought is that you would not want to create any kind of a routine. You don’t want to be predictable.”

Former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who represented mafia figures during his career as a defense attorney, said there was “no telling what we’ll find in Lake Mead,.

“It’s not a bad place to dump a body,” he told AP, adding that many former clients seemed interested in “climate control” — mob speak for keeping the lake level up and bodies underwater.

Mr Goodman played himself in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino, which chronicled the mafia underworld in Las Vegas and starred heavyweights including Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

The mob’s influence on the city is legendary, and – regardless of who might be revealed as the body in the barrel – Mr Schumacher and others are hopeful some gangster secrets may be unlocked as Lake Mead’s levels tragically drop.

“In particular, Las Vegas historians are hoping that this might answer a quest, fill a gap, in the history, of someone who went missing,” Mr Schumacher tells The Independent. “It might help us to understand a little better what was going on back in that time.

“One of the things about the mob is, when you do mob history, it’s hard. Because the mob, they didn’t take notes; they didn’t write home to Mama about what they were doing; they didn’t file reports,” he laughs.

“There’s really not a lot of paper trail to go on, as far as getting the story right – so that leads to a lot of speculation and a lot of embellishment.”

Now, however, he says: “We’re hoping this could be a real gap-filler.”

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