The remains, dubbed Hemenway Harbor Doe by the coroner’s office, are one of at least three sets
uncovered due to the dramatically receding water levels at Lake Mead, which has plunged to unprecedented lows
amid a critical water crisis in the West.
Police previously announced they placed the Hemenway Harbor Doe’s approximate time of death as sometime in the mid-’70s to early ’80s, based on the victim’s clothes and shoes. Johansson told CNN that the clothing was so well preserved in the freshwater environment that investigators were still able to read the clothing labels.
But without an ID, investigators are extremely limited. And the more time passes, the harder it will be to identify aging witnesses and potential suspects.
“If you think about what the age of who your witnesses or anybody related to this case would be, many of them are getting older every day. And they’re at an age where you have to worry, are they even alive? And so I would say that’s probably our biggest concern right now,” Johansson said.
Rouse has preliminarily determined that the age of the person in the second set of remains — found on May 7 at Calville Bay — is approximately between 23 and 37 years old. While she couldn’t confidently determine how the person died — meaning the preliminary cause of death is undetermined — the coroner’s office is sending specimens to be examined for any potential DNA.
The Calville Bay remains are more skeletal than the other two sets, Rouse said, which both still have organ tissue available for examination, despite being immersed in the lake. The cooler underwater temperatures would cause a body to decompose more slowly than if it were baking under the desert sun, she explained.
The final remains were found at the lake’s Swim Beach on July 25 and the examination is still at an early stage, Rouse said. Unlike the other two, these are only partial remains and Rouse is still processing them to determine what can even be examined based on their condition, she said.
The remains are undergoing toxicology and other testing before a cause and manner of death can be determined, the coroner said.
Police are not investigating the other two sets of remains because there is so far no sign of foul play or suspicious circumstances in the deaths, Johansson said, but he has no doubt the circumstances of the Hemenway Harbor Doe’s death are nefarious.
“Anytime you have a body in a barrel, clearly there was somebody else involved,” he said.
No strong connection to organized crime yet, police say
Theories of mob involvement in the Hemenway Harbor Doe’s death began to swirl as soon as details emerged that the remains were found inside a barrel. Those ideas were fueled even more when police announced the victim was likely killed at a time when organized crime had a strong grasp on Las Vegas.
But those ideas are “mere speculation” at this point in the investigation, Johansson said, denying that there is any solid evidence to support mob theories.
“Yes, Vegas does have a history in the past where we had a connection to violent crime, to organized crime back in the ’60s, the 70s,” he said. “However, right now, there’s nothing in this investigation that is directly tying it organized crime.”
At its height in 1983, Lake Mead was 1,225 feet above sea level. But as the climate crisis fuels a prolonged mega-drought in the West, the lake, which serves as the nation’s largest reservoir, has plummeted to sobering levels. This year it hit its lowest level
since it was filled in the 1930s.
One possible scenario for the second two remains is that they belong to people who previously drowned at the lake when water levels were high, a National Parks Service spokesperson told CNN. Recovery divers are limited on how deep they can go, so some drowning victims’ remains do not get recovered, they said.
“The lake has drained dramatically over the last 15 years,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Homicide Lt. Ray Spencer said in May. “It’s likely that we will find additional bodies that have been dumped in Lake Mead” as the water level drops further.
The dropping water level has exposed a WW II-era landing craft
, wrecked boats
and the lake’s original 1971 water intake valve
, and officials expect more surprises may be in store.