Skeletal remains found in Lake Mead identified as 1970s drowning victim

Dropping water levels have also uncovered relics including sunken boats, World War II-era landing craft and ancient volcanic rock

ByElizabeth Wolfe and Paradise Afshar, CNNWire
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
More human remains found in Lake Mead; at least 6 discovered this year
After a diver found what appeared to be a human bone in Lake Mead, the park uncovered more human remains, National Park Service confirmed Wednesday

Human remains discovered in Lake Mead in October have been identified as a 39-year-old man who is believed to have drowned in the reservoir nearly five decades ago, officials announced Tuesday.

Medical examiners determined the remains belong to Donald Smith, a Las Vegas resident who reportedly drowned in April 1974, the Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner said in a release.

"The identification was based on DNA analysis and reports from the original incident," the release said. "The cause and manner of Mr. Smith's death was determined to be drowning and accidental.

The video in this story is from a previous report

Smith's remains were uncovered after a diver came across a human bone in Lake Mead's National Recreation Area's Callville Bay on October 17, prompting a search by a park dive team that uncovered more skeletal remains.

Smith's remains were at least the sixth discovery of human remains at the reservoir in the past year as a prolonged, excruciating drought across the American West has driven Lake Mead's water levels to record lows and caused its shoreline to recede rapidly.

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The dropping shoreline has also revealed handfuls of previously submerged boats, a historic World War II-era vessel and one of the reservoir's original water intake valves. Though a recent spate of rain and snow across the West have modestly raised the lake level, experts say the incremental improvement will have little long-term impact on the dire water crisis the West is facing.

Medical examiners have been working to determine the identities and causes of death of the other remains discovered at the reservoir so far.

One set, found near the Callville Bay area on May 7, 2022, has been identified as 42-year-old Thomas Erndt, Clark County officials said. Erndt's family said he drowned while going for a late-night swim as the family was boating on the lake with friends.

The other remains, however, have yet to be identified.

That includes three sets of partial remains found in August and July along the shoreline of the lake's popular Boulder Beach that all belong to one person, according to the coroner's office.

It also includes the first set found on May 1, tucked inside an eroded barrel with an obvious gunshot wound. Investigators say the body belongs to a homicide victim who was likely killed and put in the lake in the mid-70's to early 80's.

But without identification of the victim, investigators are extremely limited, Lt. Jason Johansson of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police homicide unit told CNN last year. As more time passes, he said, the chances of finding witnesses and potential suspects narrows.

"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.

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