Overhead view of Lake Mead; Rusted barrel washed up on the shore of Lake Mead
Overhead view of Lake Mead; Rusted barrel washed up on the shore of Lake Mead
With Lake Mead drying up due to drought and climate change, the famous desert reservoir is revealing grisly secrets from the past. (Photos: Jen Grantham/Stocksy, left; Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty)

Man In a Can


With Lake Mead drying up due to drought and climate change, the famous desert reservoir is revealing grisly secrets from the past, including the remains of people thought to be victims of Las Vegas foul play. Mark Sundeen hits Nevada for a freewheeling exploration of dark deeds, a rapidly unfolding apocalypse, and a parched future that will dramatically affect the entire American Southwest.


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May 1, 2022, sunny. Seventy degrees at dawn, heading to the mid-eighties. Perfect Lake Mead weather. Out on the water, @onechickentaco hits the throttle and his boat rises up on a plane, gliding over smooth Lake Mead glass. Real name: Nathan Hollister. His wife, Shawna, is beside him, wearing her usual boat attire: bikini and sunglasses. Damn gurl, he writes on Instagram. Green lake, blue sky, tan cliffs, jagged brown mountains—just right. “My goal is to have more fun than everyone around me at any given time,” his site bio says.

Slight hassle getting out there today. The boat ramp had to be extended a quarter-mile across the sand. Climate change, megadrought. A sign warned:

DANGER
LAUNCH AT
YOUR OWN RISK
LOW WATER LEVELS

After cruising around for a bit, Hollister beaches on a spit of sand that was underwater a few weeks ago. Posts a shot of the boat to his 412 followers. No one on board. Towel draped over the seats. My boat is running like a raped ape, he writes. #boat #fun #lake #float #pretty.

He wades in up to his knees and casts a lure. The good life. He was in Afghanistan, in the Air Force, and now he lives in Las Vegas, spends weekends riding boats and dirt bikes and shooting guns for fun. He posts a pic of the rod and reel, his feet immersed in clear turquoise.

By 3 P.M., it’s around 86. Nathan and Shawna are getting baked by sun and dried by wind as he cruises back into Hemenway Harbor, a big marina in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, to the west of Hoover Dam. That’s when it happens. Later Shawna will describe the moment to a TV reporter: “We heard a woman scream from the side of the beach, and then my husband went over to obviously see what was wrong. And then he realized there was a body there in a barrel.”

The barrel was on its side in the sand. A week earlier, it had been submerged. A few years ago, 40 feet under. Decades ago, 200 feet. It’s rusted out, so you can see a pelvis and femurs scrunched up in there. Holy shit. Shawna takes a picture.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that it’s someone’s loved one out there,” she tells the reporter. “So I hope they get justice, or at least somebody finds out who it is.”

She posts a picture on Insta. “We found a body at Lake Mead today 😢,” she says. By that night, the photo is all over the news. All over the internet. Some outlets blur the bones—what, to protect the children? Others run it as is. Shawna writes on Facebook: “Well shit they put my name out there!”

Her husband writes: “Snitch!!”

Neither of them returns multiple phone calls and messages from me, inviting them to talk about it. Guess I’ll have to ask somebody else.

Lieutenant Ray Spencer steps in front of cameras at the Metro building—that’s the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, all sleek glass and shimmying palms. It’s May 3, and I’m watching online from my home in Montana.

“Had the water level not receded so far,” he tells reporters, “we never make the discovery of this victim.”

Spencer’s scalp is buffed to a sheen. Barrel-chested, straight in posture, he wears charcoal slacks with sharp creases, a gold badge clipped to the belt just beside his holstered firearm. A dark necktie is expertly knotted around the collar of a crisply pressed shirt. What’s that color? Periwinkle? Lilac? I’m usually not this way about another man’s wardrobe, but can I just say: he looks terrific.

“Someone had to have a boat, and someone had to, you know, put someone in a barrel and push them off the boat,” he says.

By the next day, homicide detectives have determined that the victim died by gunshot wound. Spencer meets the press again, backgrounded by the Stars and Stripes and Nevada’s cobalt blue flag. It’s his last month on the force after 20 years.

“We believe the incident occurred in the late 1970s to the early ’80s, and we’re basing that upon footwear and clothing that the victim was found wearing,” he says. “And we know that that footwear and clothing was sold at Kmart.”

Kmart! The rise and fall of the blue-light special plots a graph similar to that of Lake Mead itself. The discount chain launched in 1962 and peaked in 1994 with more than 2,200 stores in the U.S., only to plummet, after a series of bankruptcies and acquisitions, to a total of three today. As for Lake Mead, once the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, it rose and fell, the surface lapping at the top of the spillway in 1983 and mostly holding steady until 2001. It’s been draining like a tub ever since and was at only 31 percent of capacity when the barrel was found.

After the press conference, a retired Vegas cop named Ashton Packe tweets: “How many kids today are like ‘what’s Kmart?’ ”

The next day, a TV news crew announces that it has discovered a second barrel!

False alarm. It’s empty.

Vegas podcasters offer $5,000 to any divers who can find more bodies under the receding lake. But the National Park Service nixes this idea in a press release: “Visitors are not permitted to come to the park in efforts to independently search for artifacts or other theoretical cold case evidence.”

On Shawna Hollister’s Facebook page, a friend writes: “Jimmy Hoffa?”

Shawna says: “About the right time frame but I doubt he wore Kmart shoes haha.”

Remains of the mysterious first barrel, found on May 1, 2022
Remains of the mysterious first barrel, found on May 1, 2022 (Shawna Elizabeth Hollister)

I tweet a message to Ashton Packe and then give him a call.

“The barrel thing brought me back to a case in Las Vegas when I was very young,” he says. Now 45, Packe was the son of a casino exec and a former showgirl. One day in 1978, a six-year-old boy named Cary Sayegh—from the same school Packe later went to—was forced into a vehicle. Shortly after, his parents got a ransom call, and then nothing. Years later, a suspect told an undercover informant that he’d killed the child and put him in a barrel. The body was never found. The suspect was tried and acquitted.

Packe says he recently hung it up after 23 years, most of it working counterterrorism. But this case has gotten under his skin, like it got under mine. When he first heard about the barrel, he hoped it would be Cary, finally giving his parents some closure. But the man in the can was an adult.

Not long into the investigation, it seems pretty clear this was a mob hit. Vegas historians and journalists start speculating about who is in the barrel and who put him there. Who might have done it? The most frequently mentioned name is Anthony Spilotro, a short mobster who wreaked havoc in the seventies and eighties. (Spilotro, who was eventually murdered himself, was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, in which Joe Pesci portrayed a violent sociopath modeled on him.) Although Spilotro was suspected in roughly two dozen killings, he was never convicted of a serious crime.

Packe says barrels are a fairly foolproof disposal method.

“If I needed to whack a dude—someone molested my daughter, gotta get whacked— if you put them in the barrel, they’re never coming up,” he says.

It’s true—the barrel stayed on the bottom of the lake for decades. Meanwhile, the earth warmed and snowfall diminished and glaciers receded and the lake drained to finally reveal the barrel and its secrets.

I arrive in Las Vegas on a white-hot June day, check into my room on the top floor of the four-floor Casino Royale, right on the Strip, and drive south past shimmering towers to a newish outdoor mall with shiny shops like the Apple Store and Victoria’s Secret. The heat is fantastic. I weave my way from the garage to an Italian chain restaurant replete with terra-cotta tile and Doric columns, looking like a villa in Tuscany. The air-conditioned bar is full, so I sit on the hot, shaded patio and order a bottle of Peroni.

It would be inaccurate to go to Las Vegas in summertime and conclude: it’s hot, the planet must be warming. It’s always been hot here. That’s part of why people love it. Still, this heat wave is about five degrees worse than usual for this time of year—it’s 105 today—and human-caused climate change is a factor. It’s also cited by scientists as the chief reason that a persistent megadrought is diminishing the city’s water supply in Lake Mead.

I’m a few inches into my beer when a man arrives in jeans and sneakers and a T-shirt. The casual dress does not conceal—indeed, it may reveal—his tremendous wealth. His name is Justin Woo, and he’s a tech entrepreneur who, seven years ago, moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where he “kind of retired” and started a charity. In 2020, he paid $5,000 to a private lab to run DNA tests on a decades-old unsolved murder. Within seven months, using the results, Metro solved the case of a 14-year-old girl, Stephanie Isaacson, who was murdered in 1989. Later that year, Woo made another donation for DNA tests that solved two more cold cases of young women killed in Las Vegas. He launched the Vegas Justice League, a consortium of five local movers and shakers committed to solving old crimes. Within days of the barrel’s discovery, the League offered cash for DNA testing, but so far officials have not taken it up on that.

“We could solve this in a month,” he tells me, sipping water, the tiniest beads of sweat forming on our foreheads. He says he’s been told that the Lake Mead body has plenty of DNA to work with—some of the internal organs are even intact. “Where’s the harm in letting us try?”

“We believe the incident occurred in the late 1970s to the early ’80s, and we’re basing that upon footwear and clothing that the victim was found wearing,” Lieutenant Ray Spencer says of the first body found in a barrel in Lake Mead. “And we know that that footwear and clothing was sold at Kmart.”

Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is in charge of the investigation. Lieutenant Spencer has resigned and is running for the Vegas city council. His boss, Clark County sheriff Joe Lombardo, was involved in what became a successful run for governor, boasting in a campaign video that he “made sure that dangerous criminals who crossed our border to terrorize our communities were deported.” As for the barrel victim, Lombardo said this to the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “We’ve done the national hotline and had numerous call-ins, but nothing has panned out.” The FBI confirmed that it’s involved but has given no specifics. Later I go to its building to ask for an interview; I’m told that I have to call someone in public affairs first.

I ask Woo why he left California, and he lists the usual: traffic, taxes, cost of living. Despite the crash of 2008 and the endangered water supply, Las Vegas continues to grow, luring newcomers with its cheap houses, a booming economy, and zero income tax.

“Where I live, there are thousands of homes that in the late eighties were just dirt,” he says. I ask if he’s worried that Las Vegas will run out of water. He shakes his head. He believes in the place and is finishing plans to build a new home and believes the county and state are doing a good job restricting water use. “They limit the size of new swimming pools to 600 square feet,” he says.

I dreamily imagine flinging myself into a 20-by-30-foot emerald tank. He’s not wrong about that law. It’s certainly a worthy one. But is it too little, too late to save the Colorado River?

Later I’m watching the news, and a woman in Tennessee tells a TV news reporter that in 1994 her father, Christopher Huffman, was 24 and working at a casino when he told his family that he was in trouble and had to get out of town. The next day, fishermen found a metal trash can floating on Lake Mead. Huffman’s body, riddled with bullets, was tied to it with a long cord. Eleven days later his daughter was born. The murder was never solved.

Meanwhile, my own investigation plods along. Calls to Metro are received with “no further comment,” so on the morning after I meet Woo, I drive to the coroner’s office. As far as I can tell, it still has the body. On the way over, I get stuck in traffic behind a decrepit man pushing a wheelchair down the middle of the street.

The coroner’s building is a cube of concrete and coral-colored stucco rising from an asphalt lot. After I’m buzzed in through a locked steel door, I enter a room where two young women, one with a dark braid and the other with curly blond hair, watch me from behind thick glass.

I tell them my business. The one with the braid says, “Everything on that case is pretty much pending.” I take a seat. Someone whispers, “We were told he needs to make an appointment.” The blonde gives me an email address for the Clark County public information officer; I notice that she has a wrist tattoo of a guitar and a series of numbers.

“I like your tattoo,” I say, even though I don’t. “Do you have a phone number for this person?”

“Thank you. I do not have their phone number.”

Back outside, I google the PIO’s name, call his office and cell, and get sent to voice mail. The decrepit man is now sitting in his wheelchair, having progressed half a block. It’s like he’s trying to deliver his own body to the morgue.

I take a moment to ponder my mission. To spend a week meditating on death in Las Vegas is perverse. Here is a city built on denial: the bars never close, the lights always twinkle, the water keeps flowing across rock and dust. A metropolitan area of 2.8 million souls exists to cater to our leisure, pleasure, and comfort. It’s hard even to bring to mind things like undertakers and graveyards.

And yet to spend a week contemplating Las Vegas through the perspective of grief is oddly sublime. Once we accept the inevitability of our own death and the death of everyone we love, isn’t it fitting to hold one massive wake for all the planet’s souls, to dance and drink and sing and gamble, to watch the sunset from the Stratosphere tower, to inhale all the lovely oxygen that our lungs will hold before we sink forever to the bottom of the sea?

Anthony Spilotro under arrest in Chicago, 1974
Anthony Spilotro under arrest in Chicago, 1974 (Public Domain/FBI)

I’ve arranged to meet Ashton Packe in front of the Mirage, the faux tropical paradise with a permanent waterfall cascading from a volcano that explodes three times a night. He arrives in a gray Ford F-150 that appears to have been detailed in the past 20 minutes. Despite the heat, he wears charcoal pressed slacks, black socks, black leather shoes, and a black golf shirt. He’s tall, strong, with a trimmed beard and sunglasses. I climb in and we head down the Strip, then turn toward a restaurant in Chinatown.

Over noodles, fried calamari, and iced Vietnamese coffee, Packe says he doesn’t know who’s in the barrel, but he knows a lot about the Las Vegas of his youth, in the seventies and eighties, when the mob was in its heyday. His mom, the showgirl, became an interior decorator for celebrities; his dad was a Brit who moved to Vegas to manage a casino, a towering man who wore suits fitted by a tailor he flew in from Savile Row. Ashton remembers watching the fittings.

“The tailor would ask if he dressed on the right or the left,” Ashton says. “That meant, which side does your dick hang on?”

Ashton tells me about a time when he was training new cops in the city. They checked in on a burglary at a house—petty crime, the type of the thing that hardly gets investigated, much less solved. He handed his business card to a landlord, who took a look and said, “Are you related to Tony Packe?”

“That was my dad.”

The old man’s eyes changed. He told Ashton that he used to be a cop in L.A., back in the seventies. He killed a man in the line of duty, and though there were no consequences, the incident weighed heavily on him, and a few years later he quit the force and drove to Las Vegas to start over. He went door-to-door looking for work—any work—but no one hired him. Finally, he made his way to the Sahara, and on the casino floor he struck up a conversation with a towering Brit in a tailored suit. He said he was looking for a job.

“Do you know how to deal craps?”

“No.”

“What do you know how to do?”

He told him he’d been a police officer.

“You’re hired.” Tony trained him to be a dealer. He spent the next few decades making a good living at it.

“Used to be, the casinos provided a solid middle-class life for employees,” Packe said. “Now, with the cost of real estate going through the roof, I’m not sure it’s still that way, and it makes me sad.”

Packe drives me out to Tony Spilotro’s old house, in a modest subdivision far from the Strip. Packe’s godmother lived just a few doors down, thought Tony was the nicest guy. He shows me the site—a former Tony Roma’s restaurant—where Spilotro’s associate Frank Rosenthal was blown up in his car and somehow survived. (Another moment depicted in Casino, with Robert De Niro in the car.) The place is now a Hustler club with meth addicts lurking in the parking lot.

Spilotro had an excellent lawyer, Oscar Goodman, who would later be elected to three terms as mayor of Las Vegas. While I’m here, Goodman, 82 at the time, shows up on TV, still defending his former client in light of the barrel discovery. “I’ve got more phone calls regarding this than anything I’ve gotten before,” he says. “But the first thing I hear is the same old nonsense I heard when I represented him:
‘Tony did it!’ ”

June 28. The thermometer on my car reads 113. I’ve been in Vegas for 24 hours and one thing is clear: I didn’t pack enough underwear. “Siri,” I plead. “Take me to the outlet shops.”

I score on discounted cotton briefs. One pair of boxers is only $1.47. What a town! I buy my son a couple of pairs of Vans, even though he’s too little to skate. The second pair is 50 percent off.

I’m hauling my loot toward the parking tower when my phone vibrates. Packe has texted me the name of a retired lieutenant, Loren Stevens, who worked criminal intelligence and organized crime in the old days. I call, get a machine, and am halfway through explaining myself when a gruff-voiced man picks up. I ask about the barrel.

“It reminded everyone of Johnny Roselli,” Stevens tells me. He tells me that a notorious, now dead Chicago mob boss, Sam Giancana, used to run Las Vegas, and Roselli was his eyes and ears. “When there’s a change in power, that trickles down like dominos,” he says. “Roselli had a lot of drag, and when his boss gets got, the assumption is you’re gonna get deceased.”

Stevens keeps tossing out details, but I can’t write quickly enough. If I ask him to repeat, he might slow down or stop. “When Giancana got dumped, his right-hand man Roselli had to hear he was a short-timer,” he says. “Roselli was found bobbing in a 55-
gallon drum off Key Biscayne.”

The shoppers flood past me into Tommy Hilfiger.

“Anyway, the dummy in the drum is probably Vander-something. I don’t remember his full name. Look him up. He worked at the Stardust but went missing, and he was not the type to end up on the side of a milk carton. Probably got dispatched in ’73 or ’74.”

I ask if he has time to meet, but he says he already told me all he knows. I thank him. “All right, buddy,” he says before hanging up.

The man in the can makes me imagine Rip van Winkle resurfacing in a pair of Kmart shoes after 40 years to arrive in an utterly transformed Las Vegas. Old cops like Loren Stevens remember the cases they never solved. Ashton Packe recalls his childhood in a dusty cul-de-sac of showgirls and Rat Packers and wiseguys. Packe’s parents are gone, but he invites me to the house of his godmother, Jean, his mother’s best friend, who came to Vegas to dance in the revues in 1968.

“Used to be you didn’t dare set foot in a casino without a jacket and tie,” she says. Now in her seventies, she still wears her blond hair long and wavy. “They’d send you packing. Same with the restaurants. And the shows. Now look at people. In their shorts and flip-flops, their gut hanging out. It’s disheartening.”

As for Tony Spilotro, she says he was a gentleman. Never suspected he was a murderer. “I just thought he was a hustler.”

My own 1970s Vegas memory is of summer drives from Los Angeles to Colorado, when we’d stop at Circus Circus for the five-dollar buffet and mom and dad would drop a handful of coins into the slots.

Circus Circus still stands, relatively unchanged, the buffet now a whopping 31 bucks. Other than that, Las Vegas is hardly recognizable, sanitized by corporations that wrested control. The new Vegas is less Bugsy Siegel, more Walt Disney.

The first of the mega-resorts, the Mirage, opened in 1989 as a kind of South Seas theme park. Instead of topless girls, it offered family-friendly entertainment like Siegfried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil. Its success launched a building spree of themed resorts: Treasure Island (pirates), the Luxor (Egyptian), Excalibur (medieval), Mandalay Bay (tropical paradise), the Venetian (Venice), and the Bellagio (Italian).

Nowadays, the whimsical venues are on the wane, and the latest crop of resorts sell a less imaginative fantasy: wealth. The shimmering glass-and-steel towers—the Conrad, Cosmopolitan, Encore, and Wynn—resemble banks in Singapore or Abu Dhabi. Soon the Mirage’s kitschy volcano will be razed, replaced by yet another tower. Even the sex has been cleaned up a bit: the women cruising the Strip in lingerie aren’t hooking, they’re playacting. For 20 bucks, you can snap a selfie with a “showgirl.”

I used to find Vegas depressing, because I thought people came here hoping to win money but ended up losing. The old business model gave away rooms, meals, and shows to lure suckers into the casino. Now, as I stroll down marble balustrades, I see that I was wrong. People don’t come here to get rich, but to act rich. Gambling revenue reached its all-time high in 2021, even as resorts have pioneered new ways for guests to gleefully spend: sports betting, bottle service at poolside cabanas, Michelin-rated restaurants, and luxury malls.

Yet it’s important to remember that originally Las Vegas’s draw wasn’t sin and excess. When the town was founded in 1905 as a waypoint along the railway line between L.A. and Salt Lake City, it was chosen for its water. It’s hard to imagine now, but the place was a green oasis in the brown Mojave. The Paiute had been here for centuries, and sunburned cowboys came here to bathe in spring-fed ponds. The fakest city in the country used to be a natural Eden.

Former police Lieutenant Ray Spencer
Former police Lieutenant Ray Spencer (Eric Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who was recently elected as Nevada’s new governor
Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who was recently elected as Nevada’s new governor (Ethan Miller/Getty)

Back in my room, I do an internet search for “Stardust employee Vander.” George Vandermark supervised the slot machines at the Stardust and was responsible for skimming about $7 million, tax-free, that was supposed to go to the midwestern crime bosses who controlled the casino. (Felons and other unsavory characters weren’t allowed to own casinos, so they ran them from the shadows.) Vandermark did good work for them; the problem was that he kept $3 million for himself. When the bosses found out, he fled to Mexico, then resurfaced in Phoenix, where he was last seen in 1976.

Is it him in the can? Plausible, but Phoenix is a long drive from Lake Mead. Also, a nephew of the hit man “Nicky Slim” Calabrese, who confessed to murdering a witness to the Vandermark killing, has written that Vandermark’s body was buried in the desert, not dumped in a lake.

A man named Johnny Pappas has (excuse the expression) floated to the surface as perhaps the top contender for being the man in the can. He managed the Echo Bay Resort on Lake Mead, which was owned by the same front company that owned the Stardust. He had a boat that he kept at the marina. In August of 1976—around the same time that Vandermark disappeared in Phoenix—Pappas told his wife that he was going to meet some men interested in buying the boat. He never came home. His car was found in the parking lot of Circus Circus with the keys in the ignition.

Echo Bay Marina was dismantled in 2013 as the lake dropped. The hotel and resort Pappas managed was boarded up. The boat ramp remained in place for years but was finally closed by the Park Service ten days after the first barrel was found.

A Clark County spokesman agrees to answer any questions I have via email. I ask, “Has the DNA sample been sent to Othram lab for testing?” Othram is a forensic crime lab in Texas that worked with Justin Woo.

He replies: “No, Othram has not been used on this case.” An FBI agent finally calls back when I’m out at Lake Mead, driving on the long, wide sands of Boulder Beach. I put her on speaker. I hear background noise. I say, “Hello?” Next I’m listening to a muffled woman’s voice talking to a man about, best I can tell, her daughter’s sports events. “Can you hear me?” I shout.

It dawns on me: I’ve been butt-dialed by the feds. I listen for 15 minutes, but no important clues are revealed.

I remember something the retired lieutenant Loren Stevens told me about the barrel victim. “It’s a therefore what?” he said in his gravelly voice. “In a case like this, everyone involved is deceased—the killer, the witnesses. Very unlikely that there will be an indictment or trial.”

The next morning, a man and woman fall off their jet ski on Lake Mead. The man is lucky and gets rescued. The 22-year-old woman, who presumably drowned, does not rise to the surface.

Lindsey Melvin, in a text to her sister, Lynette, sent on May 8, writes:

Seeester what are you doing Saturday? I wanna go swimming at the lake. Look for more dead bodies. Did you hear about that body that was found yesterday?

Lynette’s reply:

Yes!! In a barrel
Let’s find moreeeee

That morning, Lindsey and Lynette drive from their homes in Henderson, a city between Vegas and Lake Mead, out to Callville Bay, on the northwestern side of the lake. The big boat ramp there is closed, and the lake’s level has been falling so fast that you would have to drive across sticky mud to reach the shoreline. No big deal. The sisters carry their paddleboards to the water.

Lindsey is 28, an ICU nurse. She grew up in Henderson, and her dad started taking her to Lake Mead early. He had a boat, a WaveRunner, diving gear. Lindsey knows that other people have their opinions about Lake Mead—that it’s polluted and murky, filled with trash and apparently dead bodies and who knows what else. She gets it. It’s not Lake Tahoe. But she loves it.

Lindsey studied nursing at UNLV, joined a sorority, partied a lot, graduated, quit partying, got a good job at a hospital. But the pandemic has been hard. Lots of abuse from patients, even as she’s trying to save their lives. She quit one job and made more money as a traveling nurse, then got another job with fewer shifts, working nights. Sometimes she sleeps all day, other times all night. In the hot summer, she bikes around Henderson at three in the morning, her hair blowing in that lovely, hot desert air.

“The dummy in the drum is probably Vander-something,” retired police lieutenant Loren Stevens tells me. “I don’t remember his full name. Look him up. He worked at the Stardust but went missing, and he was not the type to end up on the side of a milk carton. Probably got dispatched in ’73 or ’74.”

Lindsey and Lynette heave the boards into the water and skim past the marina. After a half-mile, they put on their masks and fins and snorkel a bit, but the wind comes up and the water is murky, so they pull off onto a big sandbar that emerged during the week, looking for lost stuff. Lindsey found a beaver lodge there a month ago near some cottonwoods, and hopes she can actually see one today. She’s seen bighorn sheep on this shore in the past.

She and her sister walk up the beach, find some gnawed limbs and tracks, but no beaver.

A few years back, Lindsey got her scuba certification. She’s been 90 feet down in Lake Mead, and she’s found plenty of booty over time, mostly unusable things like phones and damaged sunglasses. But she also found two pieces of jewelry, including a diamond ring that seemed straight out of the Strip’s glory days.

She walks up a beach that’s been underwater for 80 years; almost immediately, she sees a smooth white object, partly buried. The sisters are talking about this and that and complaining about work and Lynette steps right over it, while Lindsey’s heart is already pounding. A skull. She knows human anatomy.

Soon she and Lynette fall to their knees and scrape away sand. They find more bones. Ribs. A femur.

Now Lindsey is conflicted. She should call the rangers. But she wants to keep digging! And if she calls the rangers and they tell her it was just a bighorn, won’t she feel like an idiot? They keep excavating, quickly but gently. Houseboats chug past.

More digging. They find teeth with what appear to be silver fillings.

As Lynette will later tell a TV reporter: Sheep don’t have dentists.

Justin Woo (center) with members of the Vegas Justice League
Justin Woo (center) with members of the Vegas Justice League (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ashton Packe
Ashton Packe (Chad Cordova)

Before I went to Las Vegas, I just had to run a river. We hauled a raft on a trailer along miles of washboard in the Utah desert, ultimately cresting over a hill at a startling field of alfalfa, the Green River’s brown current rushing around a carved meander. With a dozen friends, four kids, and as many dogs, we pushed off and drifted toward the mouth of a big red canyon.

My son, Bodie, is about to turn three. I’ve always loved desert waters, and I want to share that with him. We took him on his first multiday river trip when he was just 15 months old, and on this trip my heart will leap as I watch him splash in the dripping springs up a side canyon. All winter we took him to infant swim lessons, and I could hardly bear to watch him flail around, sucking for air as he floated on his back.

While we drift along, the river swells, partly from the melting of spring snows up in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, partly from releases at the Flaming Gorge Dam upstream. Among the dozens of dams in the Colorado River Basin, there are three important structures that hold water and generate the electricity that makes cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles possible. The uppermost is Flaming Gorge, near the Utah-Wyoming border; the second is Glen Canyon Dam, near the Utah-Arizona border, which impounds Lake Powell; the third is Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, which captures the waters of Lake Mead. Both Mead and Powell are rapidly approaching dead-pool status, which means that water won’t drain through the dam, and electricity will not be produced. The releases from Flaming Gorge that my family and friends surf through the Canyonlands are intended to keep Glen Canyon Dam functioning.

At night, Bodie and I crawl into the tent for a story and I put on his diaper.

He says, “Is Silver happy?” Silver is the name of my other son, who died on the same day he was born in 2019.

“Yes.”

“Does he get to eat?”

“He does.”

“Are his eyes open?

“I think so.”

“Is Silver a baby or a kid?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I think he’s a baby.”

“I think he’s a kid!”

“OK,” I say. “He’s a kid.”

The second body shakes loose more ghosts—and speculation. In the summer of 2018, a 69-year-old Las Vegas man named Brian Yule launched his sailboat from the marina. The boat was found, empty, a few days later. Yule was never seen again. Statistically, Lake Mead is the most dangerous national park in the country, with an average of 25 deaths each year, many of them drownings. It also sees the most homicides.

A retired schoolteacher living in Spain, Todd Kolod, believes that the remains discovered by the Melvin sisters belong to his father, who drowned in Callville Bay in 1958. Dan Kolod was 22, already married with two small children, when he and a friend were ejected from a powerboat. The throttle was locked and the boat sped off; it was later recovered in the next bay over. The friend was rescued. Dan sank and was never found.

Todd was just shy of three at the time. He has no memories of his father. But the photos taken by the Melvin sisters seem to show that the deceased was missing his front teeth. Dan Kolod had his teeth knocked out in a car wreck and wore dentures. But Kolod’s dental records don’t exist, so this case, too, will rely on DNA testing.

Kolod tells a reporter, “After he drowned, I was told he went away.”

The thought of a kid on the verge of his third birthday separated forever from his dad is almost more than I can bear. One morning before I leave home for Nevada, a window screen falls and decapitates two spring tulips in our yard. Bodie and I bring them inside and put them in a small vase. The flowers have closed up. “Why do tulips close at night?” he asks.

“So they don’t get filled with insects, I guess.” I don’t really know. “And bats. So the bats don’t eat them.”

“If the bats eat them, do they die?”

“I think so.”

“Is it sad when the tulips die?”

“Not that sad. They grow back every year.”

“But is it sad when Silver dies?”

“Yeah. It’s sad when Silver dies.”

At dawn on June 29, I set out early from Casino Royale for Callville Bay. By now Lake Mead’s level has dropped to an elevation of 1,043 feet, leaving Las Vegas’s primary water intake high and dry. This fact is more symbolic than catastrophic; in 2015, the water district drilled a new intake at the bottom of the lake that will function even if it recedes to a dead-pool level of 895 feet. Five of the lake’s six boat ramps are closed. Two weeks before my visit, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water District told a U.S. Senate committee: “What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near.”

I drive an hour through parched desert, then crest over a rocky lump, finally seeing the glittering, aquamarine lake. The hot concrete boat ramp is the size of two football fields placed end to end. I coast to the bottom and park at a sign that reads 2008 Lake Level. It’s just after 8 A.M., the sun beating down, the temperature already in the upper nineties.

Lindsey Melvin, the nurse who discovered the second body, is waiting for me with two inflated paddleboards. She wears shorts, neoprene booties, a hooded sun shirt, and a visor, her long hair pulled into a ponytail.

I ask how much drinking water she has. She shrugs. “I have a filter, as long as you don’t mind drinking lake water.”

We follow a one-lane paved road that extends a few hundred yards past the ramp, turning to gravel for a ways. At a sign reading Lake Mead Level 2021, a few golf carts are parked and a crude bridge crosses an arroyo. The vibe feels apocalyptic.

We walk on a creaky gangplank that snakes down a quarter-mile of dry lake bed, flanked with pipes and hoses and conduits, maritime flotsam baking in the dust on either side, occasional gaps spanned with sheets of plywood, all jerry-built on floatable plastic blocks now mired in dirt.

The reason such effort has gone into maintaining access is that, down in the bay, dozens of big boats are moored in the marina. Each week, the entire structure—with its fuel pumps and sun awnings and snack store and break wall of old tractor tires—is somehow pushed farther into the lake as the shoreline advances.

I watch Lindsey heave the enormous paddleboard off the dock and into the lake.

“How tall are you anyway?” I say.

“What are you saying, I’m short?” she snaps. “I’m five foot two-point-five.”

We stand on the boards and paddle. We soon encounter a raggedy old captain on a rickety houseboat tied to shore. He tells us he was marooned on a sandbar for three weeks as the lake receded, leaving him 40 yards away from the water. Someone pulled him off with a powerboat, cracking his hull in the process, and now he can’t get the boat off the lake, nor can he patch it in the water. He seems flummoxed. “Water was dropping eight inches a day,” he says.

How long will it take for Lake Mead to drop that final 50 feet? It depends largely on snowpack in the Rockies, which feeds the Colorado River, and in the Wind River Range, which feeds the Green. In 2020, the lake dropped around 20 feet, and in 2021 another 20. Scientists warn that the so-called millennium drought, now in its 22nd year, is the worst in 1,200 years, and that because of a warming planet, we might as well regard such changes as the new normal.

Lindsey has an uncommon enthusiasm for water infrastructure; her now retired dad was employed by the water district. “It was great for take-your-kids-to-work day,” she tells me. “The whole water-reclamation system in Vegas is amazing compared with everywhere else. Other places just dump it out to the ocean.”

We paddle to the spot where she found the body. The cottonwoods and willows where she saw the beaver lodge are high and dry; the thirsty trees will probably not survive.

I ask if finding the bones was disturbing. “Not at all,” she says. She’s OK with dead bodies. “Actually, if I could choose my dream job, it would be in the coroner’s office.”

“Why’s that?”

“Everyone’s already dead. They don’t yap atcha.”

We proceed to a sheltered cove. A coyote pokes his head from behind a rock, stares, retreats, turns his head for a final look, then trots off. We pull up to shore and don masks and snorkels. The water is the perfect temp for a 110-degree day: cool enough to refresh, warm enough to swim as long as you want.

If you’re in deep water, it’s hard to see anything on the bottom, so we hug the craggy coast, looking mostly at sand and rocks. But Lindsey brings an exuberance that is contagious. She taps my shoulder and we pop our heads above water.

“There’s a pile of fish bones!” she says. “Want to dig it up?” As I float around seeing minnows and pebbles, she dives to retrieve fishing rods and sunglasses. She hoists a very heavy steel anchor from the bottom. “These things are worth money,” she says. “My dad found some that he cleaned up and sold on eBay.”

Lindsey tells me that she still loves being in Henderson, but she also dreams of bigger adventures.

“I’d like to see the Great Barrier Reef,” she says. “Before it’s gone.”

We paddle to a farther cove, and I get in the spirit of things. I watch huge catfish emerge from caves as I float above. We find a fat blue fish lurking among underwater weeds; Lindsey dives to poke it with a fishing rod, and it darts away. I retrieve a heavy length of rope. And then I feel Lindsey tug at my fin. She points down.

A barrel.

Wordlessly, we dive for it. I feel the pressure in my ears, and we take turns poking our heads into the barrel’s open mouth.

Empty.

By noon the winds are whipping foot-high whitecaps across the lake. We paddle toward the marina. “I’ve only been alive 28 years and I’ve already seen this place change so much, and not for the better,” she says. “This is crazy, but I actually do love it here. I don’t know what it will be like in a few years.”

The author (bottom right) with family and friends on the Green River in Utah
The author (bottom right) with family and friends on the Green River in Utah (Mike Golins)
Pools at the Bellagio
Pools at the Bellagio (Hum/Universal Images Group/Getty)

Another thing that happened 40 years ago, when that poor soul was stuffed in a barrel, was this: the United States got its first glimpse of the coming catastrophe of climate change and had a chance to act. We failed. Instead, for an entire generation, the lies peddled by the oil industry supplanted scientific truth, and the U.S. led the world to irreversible disaster.

Meanwhile, the most ambitious period of dam building on the Colorado River Basin, which began with the Hoover in 1934, ended in 1986 with the completion of the McPhee, on the Dolores River in southern Colorado. During those decades, major dams were built at Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge in Utah, and a series of canals and power plants called the Central Arizona Project enabled the transformation of Phoenix from a dusty outpost to America’s fifth-largest city.

Over the years, public outcry defeated similar projects in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon. Evaporation of Lakes Mead and Powell has proven to be a staggering loss of resources, and the biggest debate with respect to Southwest dams has not been about building more, but about tearing down Glen Canyon.

For all its supposedly promiscuous spillage, Las Vegas leads the West in water wisdom. It has adapted better to the drought than Salt Lake City, Phoenix, or L.A. When the Colorado River was divvied up among seven states in 1922, California got 59 percent of the water, Arizona 37 percent, and Nevada only 4 percent. That may not have mattered when the state was hardly populated, but as Las Vegas grew, it tapped into Lake Mead, from which it now draws 90 percent of its water.

In the early 2000s, with as many as 100,000 people moving to Clark County each year, city leaders got religion. The Las Vegas Valley Water District declared war on grass, paying residents to rip up thirsty turf and replace it with drought-tolerant plants. It deployed water cops to fine customers for violations, such as midday sprinkling and failing to repair leaky pipes. Every drop that goes down the drain is decontaminated and released back into Lake Mead, from which it will be piped back to faucets. The Bellagio fountains, for all the extravagant waste they’ve come to symbolize, take no water at all from Lake Mead. They operate on a well, recycling the water, using less all told than the golf course that preceded it.

Clark County used less water in 2021 than it did in 2002, despite gaining 750,000 residents. That’s a stunning decrease of 48 percent per capita. When environmentalists primly wish that this decadent city would die, suggesting that the 2.3 million people of Clark County have no right to occupy the desert, they aren’t that far away from the puritanical right, who would like to see God smite from the earth this Sodom and its Sodomites.

An hour after my swim with Lindsey, I’m speeding along the emerald shore of Lake Mead to Boulder City, racing to Park Service headquarters before closing time. I’ve left messages that went unanswered. Safely in the parking lot by 3:30, I sit in the relative cool of the driver’s seat and wiggle out of swimming trunks and into khakis and a collared shirt. When I try the front door to the building, it won’t budge. A sign lists abbreviated hours: 10 to 3. I creep around back, peer through another locked door, and see on someone’s office door a handwritten note: TELE-WORKING MON–THUR.

I drive a few minutes toward Hoover Dam. A pair of armed men in paramilitary gear stop me at the checkpoint. A man whose face is entirely masked by sunglasses and a balaclava orders me to roll down all four windows. I comply. He peers inside, then wishes me a good day. I wind down the road to the dam, wedged inside the red canyon like a china platter.

I park to walk across the dam but am blown back by the heat. My water bottle is long since empty. Looking down at the dam, with its hundred-plus feet of concrete wall vacillating in the hot sun, exposed by the drought, I remember taking a tour here as a child, and a memory surfaces of a cool, dark place humming with electrical current. It must be heaven in there. I resolve to take the tour just to cool off.

“Seeester what are you doing Saturday?” Lindsey Melvin texts to her sister on May 8. “I wanna go swimming at the lake. Look for more dead bodies. Did you hear about that body that was found yesterday?” Lynette’s reply: “Yes!! In a barrel. Let’s find moreeeee.”

I move my vehicle to the parking structure, and the attendant runs my card for the ten-dollar fee.

“How much does the tour cost?”

“Actually, tours are closed for the day.”

“Oh. Can I have my money back then?”

“No, but you can visit the gift shop.”

“How come you can’t give me my money back?”

He mumbles something.

“What?”

“Because I’m a low-level employee.”

I park and zip down to the gift shop. The door is locked. I pound on it. A woman opens just enough to tell me they’ve closed early.

Bathrooms: locked. Drinking-fountain water: warm.

I stumble stupidly across the dam. It’s as gorgeous as ever, a lasting monument to America’s onetime greatness, not only an engineering marvel but a work of Art Deco so sublime that you can imagine Jay Gatsby shaking martinis on the Arizona Intake Tower. Now, if you jump from the edge, you’ll land on rocks. It feels like something from a neglected former Soviet republic.

Back in Las Vegas that night, as the heat persists, I’m drawn like a dowser to the water. Once the sun sets, I stroll past the junkies and dress-up Playboy bunnies to the Bellagio, which to me is the Strip’s sweet spot, its faux Romanesque arches and domed rotundas and carved plaster ceilings loosely transporting us to the shores of Lake Como in Italy. The Bellagio maintains a touch of whimsy that the city has apparently outgrown.

I gather with the hordes along the iron rail of the eight-acre lake, where every 15 minutes a thousand nozzles and 4,000 electric lights put on a fantastic show. Your heart would have to be made of plywood not to swoon a bit as the ballet of fountains dance and sway, Celine Dion belting out the love song from Titanic, the backlit geysers bursting into mist.

Like any good Vegas visitor, I buy a last-minute ticket for O, the Cirque du Soleil show at the Bellagio that takes place in—wait for it—water. It’s been packing in 3,600 guests a night for 22 years. Among the scant available seats are those in the front row, considered the “wet zone,” undesirable to those afraid of a little splash. But I’m here to get drenched.

I take my place beside empty seats, wondering if this is going to be some kind of tourist schlock, but once the scarlet chiffon curtain billows away, a knot in my chest comes loose. I’ve been in Las Vegas five days now, the longest I’ve been away from my son since the pandemic began, and I discover that I’m watching the show through his eyes, silencing any voices that might call it corny or pedestrian. And let me tell you: he loves it. He loves the swimming horses! The fart-joke clowns! The androgynous amphibians splashing up the deck of the pool and crawling toward the crowd! As acrobats in zebra suits spritz me with pool water, a simple longing washes over me: I want to take my boy to see this.

I’ve read the signs out front that say children must be five to attend. That’s two years from now. I want Bodie to reach five. And that thought just about melts me. When you lose one child, you’re afraid to plan very far into the other’s future.

Lindsey (left) and Lynette Melvin
Lindsey (left) and Lynette Melvin (Joe Buglewicz)

I reach Todd Kolod by video call. He is 67 now, living on an island off the coast of Spain. I have seen a picture of him as a toddler with his father. I can’t stop looking at it. Dad wears a plaid shirt tucked into slacks, horn-rimmed glasses, and he’s squeezing the child to his chest, smiling. All I see is the love, and I feel sorrow that these two never had a life together.

“I didn’t realize the full weight of it until my son was that age,” Kolod says. “I was just shy of three when he died. You don’t fully grasp it until you are a father.”

Hoping to dredge up memories of his dad, Kolod has tried hypnosis, but nothing emerged. There was no funeral, partly because Jewish tradition requires a body and there wasn’t one. His mother quickly moved on: remarried, relocated, got rid of Dan’s possessions. Todd was raised to think the new husband was his father. It wasn’t until he was 11, when his mother divorced, that she revealed who his father really was—and how he died.

“My whole life had been about death and dying, really,” he tells me. “I’ve been wrestling with it. I’ve always been aware of it, noticing the passage of time. I just think about mortality a lot since I’ve had the loss.”

Kolod went on to a career in public education. In his twenties, he met the friend of his dad’s who had survived the accident and who described his father’s final minutes, flailing in the water and screaming for help. “Since then, when I swim, I often have flashbacks of that story,” Kolod says.

I tell him about losing Silver, the constant fear that I’ll lose Bodie, or he’ll lose me.

“Imagine people telling you that your dad went away with no other explanation,” he says.“You get it.”

“I do get it.”

Kolod’s story also ties back to old Vegas. His grandfather, Ruby Kolod, was part of the Cleveland mob, and he came west in 1949 to manage the Desert Inn. “He had the cleanest record, so they made him the front man,” Kolod says. “He was very loving. The ultimate patriarch. But he never recovered from the death of his son. It carved him out. He ends up dying from a heart attack in ’67.”

Todd hopes the body in Callville Bay turns out to be his dad. But he doubts it will provide much closure. “Like you said with your son, it’s going to go with me to my grave, I guess.”

After the call ends, I realize that my swim in Lake Mead has made me want more. A friend is in town for a concert; he sneaks me into the Bellagio’s lovely pool and garden. I also discover the downtown municipal pool, far from the neon strip, where for three dollars I can swim a mile in Olympic-length lanes, surrounded by neighborhood kids and old folks. Here the water seems not wasteful at all, but a miracle of civilization—the fact that a single tank from the Colorado can spread so much joy to so many.

Suspended in the precious snowmelt, hundreds of miles from the mountains where it once fell, I feel close to Silver. He lived his entire nine months in the water of the womb. From all we could tell, he was happy in there, with his nightly routine of kicks and squirms. He never opened his eyes to the sun or his lungs to the air. In the water he was alive.

I’m cruising Henderson with the Melvin sisters at sunset, my final night, the evening rays almost horizontal over the subdivisions.

“This whole neighborhood wasn’t here when we were kids,” Lindsey says.

“This place wasn’t even here last month,” Lynette adds, pointing at some new construction.

The continued growth of Clark County is a symmetrical inversion of the decline of Lake Mead. As water goes down, buildings go up, and every week something new is revealed. Despite Vegas’s success story in adapting to drought, the elephant in the pool is growth. The county has managed water well for its present size; if it continues to grow, and water allocations continue to decline, there will be some tough decisions. Controlling growth will drive up home prices, which will drive up wages, which will drive up the cost of vacations on the Strip, and that could turn people away. Even with its new veneer of opulence, Vegas is still a cheap date—it costs you less visiting the Venetian than traveling to Italy; it’s easier to experience New York–New York than the real thing.

We drive past the house the sisters grew up in, then they take me to the Las Vegas Wash, a 12-mile waterway that I imagine will be a dry rocky arroyo. Instead it’s an oasis, a ribbon of clear water hemmed by green marsh. Ducklings bob on the sunset’s reflection. Mountain lions have been spotted here. I had no idea: a beautiful stream flows through Las Vegas Valley.

The wash drains toward Lake Mead but first tunnels under Lake Las Vegas, an artificial pond that’s home to a pre-mortgage-crisis real estate boondoggle of the same name. The development is a grassy village with two golf courses, 3,000 homes, and an 80-foot yacht optimistically named La Contessa; for $300 an hour, its crew will take you in circles around the minuscolo reservoir. Lake Las Vegas is the largest commercial water user in the district. The village never quite recovered from the bust of 2008 and today feels vacant to me, almost abandoned.

The next three biggest water users are golf courses, followed by four casinos: Caesars, Mandalay Bay, the Venetian, the Wynn. When I look into my crystal ball, I see these mega-resorts with their “beach clubs” continuing to thrive, while golf courses will go the way of mob-owned casinos, brothels, and dining rooms that require coats and ties.

Fourth of July. I’ve moved off the Strip to a place calling itself the Thunderbird Boutique Hotel, Lounge, and Wedding Chapel. The neighborhood doesn’t seem to have changed much since the seventies: there are adult bookstores and a variety of drive-through wedding venues with convertible pink Cadillacs parked out front. I can hear fireworks, or gunshots. Two days before this, a mile from the Thunderbird at a 7-Eleven, a homeless man stabbed another man, whose girlfriend then pulled a gun and shot the attacker dead.

In late July, after my visit, a 31-year-old man will drown on Lake Mead after he’s separated from his inflatable kayak in a windstorm. On July 25, as the waters reach a new low, a third unidentified body will be found on the receding shoreline. On August 6, a fourth set of remains will turn up on the same beach as the third. It’s possible these are from the same person.

In late August, the body discovered by the Melvin Sisters will be identified with DNA testing. It is not Todd Kolod’s father. It is a different father, 42-year-old Thomas Erndt, who 21 years ago was boating with his two children when they all jumped into the water. Thomas never resurfaced. “We heard ‘Help’ three times, and we couldn’t find him,” his daughter will tell a reporter.

Before my flight home, I splash into the crescent-shaped pool at the hotel. A man and his son are swatting a beach ball, calling to each other in Spanish, laughing. A man and his son. I like being next to them. I fill my lungs with air and let myself sink, blowing bubbles as I drop to the bottom. It’s cool and quiet and green and safe down here. I push toward the sunlight and begin to swim.

From November/December 2022 Lead Photos: Jen Grantham/Stocksy, left; Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty