I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The famous Las Vegas marketing slogan, “What happens here, stays here” is a bald-faced lie. Latest proof: the insane worldwide publicity generated by the discovery a few days ago of a still-unidentified, long-murdered man in a barrel found at the bottom of receding Lake Mead just east of Las Vegas.
From the New To Las Vegas world headquarters, I just Googled the simple search command “body barrel Lake Mead Las Vegas,” going back only to Sunday when the story broke. I got 168,000 hits.
They’re from far beyond local and regional outlets. The New York Times. The Washington Post. The New York Post. USA Today, Detroit News, The Hill (which normally just covers D.C.). Smaller papers in places like Honolulu and Syracuse. Even the New York-based National Herald, which bills itself as “the paper of record of the Greek Diaspora community.” (Do its editors know something?)
I’m really only scratching the Internet surface.
As I will detail below, murdered bodies found in a barrel is actually not such an unusual occurrence, at least in the U.S. But they rarely if ever get much publicity outside their local area. Why this case has says much about the poor perception that far-away editors–perhaps reflecting the public–have of the culture and history of Las Vegas. These are themes I have touched on before and am happy to revisit.
In the summer of pre-pandemic 2019, Las Vegas was hit by a plague of grasshoppers, a phenomenon of nature caused by an unusually wet year. The Mormon crickets, as they’re officially called, did little damage because it’s pretty slim pickings to start with in the Mojave Desert. Such infestations aren’t uncommon, and a big one even hit a year earlier–to no non-local coverage–in rural Winnemucca, Nev. But as I wrote at the time, the Las Vegas infestation got ridiculous media attention across the U.S. and around the world. My personal favorite was the coverage in India’s second-largest newspaper, The Hindu, whose website featured a video clip with spooky background music and close-ups making the insects look like dinosaurs. In London, the The Guardian published a blown-up photo of not one but two seemingly giant grasshoppers stalking–or so it appeared from the online caption–the offices of the Las Vegas Sun.
I attributed the publicity to the association by far-away editors of Las Vegas’s unofficial nickname–Sin City–with what the Bible says was the God-driven plague of locusts–a kind of grasshopper–in Egypt that helped Moses and his fellow Jews escape across the Red Sea from the Pharaoh. The common editorial theme I perceived was another divine punishment of an area that deserved it.
Earlier in 2019, the Nevada Highway Patrol in Las Vegas monitoring a two-person-minimum high occupancy vehicle freeway lane stopped a hearse containing a live driver and a dead body being transported to another facility.The driver argued–unsuccessfully–he was okay because he had a second person, just not one that was alive. The U.S. media–but not so much the foreign press–had a field day with this one. The media attention might have been boosted by an editorial perception that folks in Las Vegas are simply sharpies looking for an angle. But as I wrote at the time, local stories–with little or no national pick-up–are written all the time about drivers across the country caught trying to get around carpool lane pools by using blown-up dummies, rolled-up blankets or even pets. I even cited a years-earlier Los Angeles Times story about a hearse driver there nailed in the HOV with a stiff.
In the case of the Lake Mead barrel body, I think the underlying motivation is the still-unproven possibility that the cause of the murder–police said the body had been shot as long ago as the 1970s–might somehow be related to organized crime. Mob characters using casinos to skim profits and avoid taxes played key roles in developing the Las Vegas Strip from the late 1940s to sometime in the mid- to-late 1980s. This throwback history–plus, of course, the presence of the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas–is well known to editors and the public, thanks in part to movies like “Bugsy,” “Casino” and even “The Godfather” trilogy. Murder was one of the business strategies, but rarely performed locally. Thinking about it, I wouldn’t bet without more evidence on a mob connection to the barrel body.
Still, I recall the nervous buzz that went through this town in 2016 concerning Charles Stango, a pedigreed member (killer, racketeering conviction) and reputed capo of the New Jersey crime family that helped inspire the TV series “The Sopranos.” He had been arrested while living in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. Was the mob back? As it turns out, probably not, although court filings quoted the secretly wiretapped Stango as saying, ““I planted the f–kin’ flag in f–kin’ New Orleans, in Las Vegas, f–king L.A., okay?” He pleaded guilty to ordering that someone be whacked in New Jersey. Now 78, he later was sentenced to 10 years and according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is scheduled for release in 2024. No word where he will go.
Getting back to barrels, you’d never know from all the attention the Lake Mead body barrel has gotten that, unfortunately, the discovery of barrels containing a dead person happens around the country all the time. Nor is it new. It is widely rumored, though far from proven, that a barrel moving around was the final resting spot of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975.
I found perhaps a score of barrel body cases since 2015 simply by Googling the search command “barrel body” and sorting through the resulting clips. There were incidents in Ripon, Wis.; North Jersey, Butler, Ohio; and Kansas City, Kan. A 2017 case in San Diego actually involved a barrel found in water. One story about a case in Edgefield County, S.C. carried the headline, “man arrested in bizarre body in a barrel case,” raising the interesting question of how a non-bizarre body-in-a-barrel story might read. The Los Angeles website ranker.com last fall helpfully published a list of “11 Women Who Were Brutally Murdered and Stuffed In Barrels.”
Of course, this is all very sad. But in my view the wide focus on this one case around Las Vegas shows that the area image-makers still have a lot of work to do.