As Lake Mead water levels drop, how many bodies are connected to Chicago mob?

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Saturday, November 12, 2022
How many Chicago mob bodies are in Lake Mead?
As Lake Mead water levels drop and more dead bodies are discovered, experts believe many could be connected to Chicago mob activity in Las Vegas.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's one of the most famous slogans of any American city: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." But what the mob may have intended to stay in a Vegas lake has now begun floating to the surface, as a popular recreational area just east of Sin City dries up in a drought.

Crystal clear Lake Mead is the man-made drinking water source for 25 million people. But lately, it's been stricken by a terrible drought and coyotes roam a shoreline now haunted by a hidden past and sordid questions.

I-TEAM INSIDER: What stays in Vegas?

ABC7 Investigative Reporter Chuck Goudie goes inside a Chicago mob story that is, literally, just surfacing.

Six skeletons have surfaced so far and so have stories of missing mob victims from the decades. In May, one body was found in a barrel with a bullet hole in the skull with clothing from the 1970s or 1980s.

"There are a couple of people who have disappeared at a very crucial time and a very stressful time for the Outfit in Las Vegas," said John L. Smith.

Smith has been investigating the Chicago Outfit for decades in Las Vegas, and is a well-known author on organized crime. Smith met the I-Team at Lake Mead recently, about 30 miles from the infamous gambling strip that was controlled by Chicago gangsters in the 1970s and 1980s, right when several mob-linked men vanished.

READ MORE: Are there Chicago Outfit ties to 5th skeleton found in Lake Mead's potential watery mob graveyard?

"At the Stardust Hotel especially. They were never, they were never found. Jay Vandermark being one. Johnnie Pappas being another," said Smith.

Vandermark, a friend of Smith's family, worked at the mob-linked now-defunct Stardust as slot manager. Chicago native Pappas worked at an Outfit-run casino resort right on Lake Mead. Both disappeared in 1976 when the water level was normal. Now it's evaporating and causing water levels to fall more than 150 feet.

"They would have boats on the lake for celebrities, high rollers, people are willing to pay for it. So there was always this connection with Lake Mead as a recreation area, and then eventually Lake Mead as the water supply. And now the water supply is dropping so the bodies are bobbing up," said Michael Green, University of Nevada Las Vegas history professor.

SEE MORE: Patrick Spilotro, brother of Chicago Outfit mobsters Tony and Michael Spilotro, dies

Green said he suspects Chicago mob figures are the most likely remains in the water, and that there are probably more to come.

"The lake's dropping more, we're going to find more bodies or the lake is filling up again. We have to dive in there and find the bodies," Green said.

In August, DNA revealed one set of bones belonged to a boater who drowned in 2002 and disappeared. No Outfit connections. But what about the others? Who ordered the lake murders? One name surfaces frequently.

RELATED: Could the bodies found in Lake Mead be connected to the Chicago mob?

"If you ask the FBI back in the 70s, and 80s, they attributed all kinds of murders to Tony Spilotro. They believe that he was killing people, were having people killed on a regular basis," said Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs at the Las Vegas Mob Museum.

Tony "Ant" Spilotro was himself murdered in 1986 and found with his brother buried in an Indiana cornfield. At the Mob Museum, Spilotro commands several displays including the handcuffs he once wore.

"Nobody's really connected all the dots yet and all these missing figures from that era. But, you know, maybe these bodies coming up at Lake Mead will reveal something to us," Schumacher said.

Authorities in Las Vegas declined to discuss the corpses found at Lake Mead. It is possible that some won't be identified.

For some, the larger environmental problem of a major lake drying up is more significant than a body count, but for law enforcement identifying victims, motives and killers is the only focus.