Drought in the US exposes dark past of the mafia in Las Vegas

When someone was said to be “sleeping with the fishes”, no one expected to see them again. But not even the mafia escapes the impact of climate change.

As a result of global warming, the largest reservoir in the United States dries up little by little, beginning to spit out the darkest secrets of Las Vegas, the so-called capital of sin.

Just a few miles from the majestic and vibrant casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, the waters of Lake Mead recede, revealing the residue of hectic weekends with boaters and visitors.

But on the shore of this reservoir other remains have begun to emerge.

The skeleton of a man who was shot in the head and thrown into the reservoir in a barrel four decades ago appeared at the site a few weeks ago, drawing the attention of a specific group of people.

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“The mob used to put people in barrels, tossing them into the dam or into the field,” says Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

“Secondly, this person was shot in the head, which is typical of the mafia. And then we know that this happened in the 1970s or early 1980s, when the mob was prominent in Las Vegas.”


An unlikely oasis of hotels, casinos and vice flourished in the Nevada desert in the 20th century.

Las Vegas was founded in 1905, but its population only grew when construction began on the nearby Hoover Dam.

The arrival of construction workers created a market for entertainment that was filled by sex workers, entertainers, and gambling.

And where there is skin, casinos and alcohol, organized crime is not long in coming.

“The mob played a big role in the development of Las Vegas between the 1940s and 1980s,” explains Schumacher.

“There was a lot of activity going on behind the scenes with the mafia controlling the management of the casinos, but also building and expanding them, using in many cases union money.”

After World War II, the city capitalized on the boom that fueled the American dream and became the gaming capital of the world.

And mobsters in distant cities like Chicago, Cleveland, or New York wanted their share of every $100 a tourist spun at roulette while drinking free booze.

The diversion of money, which undoubtedly cost the city millions of dollars in lost taxes, was a double-edged sword.

“They also created this kind of mystical image about Las Vegas. People wanted to come thinking ‘maybe when I sit in a bar, there will be a mobster next to me,’” Schumacher said.


But it wasn’t all glamour.

“Actually all these guys were cold-blooded killers, they were thieves. If you crossed paths with the mafia in any way, there would definitely be consequences.”

Las Vegas police are still investigating the body found in a barrel in Lake Mead, according to AFP, so no details were released.

But Schumacher has come up with some hypotheses.

One option, he believes, is that it was Jay Vandermark, who worked at the StarDust Hotel, which was controlled by Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal on behalf of the Chicago mob.

Rosenthal, who was brought to the big screen by Robert DeNiro in the movie “Casino,” was siphoning off money to his bosses until the scheme caught the attention of local authorities.

Vandermark disappeared shortly after.

Another candidate, Schumacher speculates, is Harry Pappas, another man linked to the Chicago mob and who was in charge of a boat that the Stardust Hotel kept in the reservoir formed after the construction of the Hoover Dam.

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“One of the added perks for high rollers visiting Vegas was being taken out on the reservoir in a boat.

“Before disappearing, [Pappas] told his wife that he was going to have lunch with someone interested in buying his boat. We never saw Harry Pappas again.”

Lake Mead has lost more than half its volume and shows no signs of recovery, as human action continues to alter weather patterns.

Schumacher believes that new secrets may appear on its increasingly distant shore.

“I don’t know if we’ll find another body in a barrel, but I think there may well be another homicide victim in there.”


Drought in the US exposes dark past of the mafia in Las Vegas