Historic Lake Mead drought leads to disturbing discoveries on dried up ground

Human remains from five people were discovered this year.

October 27, 2022, 11:23 AM

Climate change and a historic drought affecting the Colorado River have turned local waterbeds throughout the southwest into veritable deserts.

And in Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, the environmental crisis has led to the discovery of artifacts and even the remains of people who were lost to the waters long ago.

Tina Bushman, of Waco, Texas, learned this summer that the remains of her father, Thomas Erndt, were found this spring, 20 years after he was lost in the waters while her family was swimming in the lake.

"He died in the place that he loved," Bushman told "Impact x Nightline."

PHOTO: Lake Mead's water levels have reached historic lows due to a drought from the Colorado River.
Lake Mead's water levels have reached historic lows due to a drought from the Colorado River.
ABC News

Climate experts and local officials tell "Impact x Nightline" that discoveries like this are going to become more common as the drought gets worse.

Lake Mead's water levels are at a historic low, roughly 1,046 feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and have been depleting at a rapid rate. The drought has been so bad that the mountains that surround the river have a white-colored imprint that shows where the water levels used to be.

PHOTO: The white line in the mountains surrounding Leak Mead shows how high the water used to be, according to experts.
The white line in the mountains surrounding Leak Mead shows how high the water used to be, according to experts.
ABC News

D.J. Jenner, the owner of Las Vegas Scuba, who has been observing the lake for years, told "Impact" that the water levels have gone down roughly 40 feet since he started his business.

"There's still plenty of water out here for people to come out and enjoy the lake, but it is going down pretty quickly," he said.

The dry-up has resulted in a decrease in the lake's shoreline and with it the emergence of relics that were lying on the lake's floor.

Jenner and others have found everything from coffee machines to the wreckage of a boat in just the last year. He predicted that there will be more finds as the waters keep receding.

PHOTO: DJ Jenner and ABC News' Matt Gutman observe a wrecked boat that was found after Lake Mead's water level dramatically decreased.
DJ Jenner and ABC News' Matt Gutman observe a wrecked boat that was found after Lake Mead's water level dramatically decreased.
ABC News

But it's the recent gruesome discoveries that have made the news.

Between May and August, the remains of five people were discovered in dried up sections of the lake. Earlier this month, a diver found more human remains in the lake, according to the National Park Service.

One of the remains was found on May 1 in a barrel and investigators said the unidentified person was killed by a gunshot to their head.

The Las Vegas Metro Police department and Lake Mead National Recreation Area had no comment for ABC News when asked about the missing remains.

Even though the investigation is ongoing, some historians and fanatics who have followed Las Vegas' history of organized crime told "Impact" that there could be Mafia connections.

Watch the full report on the discoveries found in Lake Mead's receding waters on an episode of Impact x Nightline streaming now on Hulu.

"There's a lot of things we don't know about the mob in Las Vegas. The mob purposely didn't keep notes, they didn't keep diaries [and] they didn't keep journals," Geoff Schumacher, a mob historian and vice president of exhibits and programs at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, told "Impact."

"They threw away and burned all the evidence. So, we don't know a lot about what really happened here. And perhaps some of the things dumped into Lake Mead over time might help us to fill in some of those gaps."

The remains found in the barrel, however, were an outlier as investigators said the four other bodies that were discovered this year were victims of accidental drownings.

PHOTO: Tina Bushman lost her father, Thomas Erndt, in 2002 while she and her family were vacationing in Lake Mead.
Tina Bushman lost her father, Thomas Erndt, in 2002 while she and her family were vacationing in Lake Mead.
ABC News

Bushman told "Impact" that she heard about the stories surrounding the mysterious barrel remains and was concerned that her family's tragedy would falsely be associated with the Mafia speculation if her father's remains were ever found.

Her family lived in the Las Vegas area and would visit the lake every weekend when she was growing up. In 2002 they took a boat onto the water for a late-night swim.

Erndt couldn't make it back to the boat and called for help but eventually went under, she said.

An extensive search didn't recover his body.

"People were sending me articles… [and] were like, 'Hey, look at this. They've been finding bodies in the lake. Like, maybe one will be your dad," Bushman said. "And I was like, 'No. They weren't able to find him then. They're not going to be able to find him [now].'"

But a chance discovery by two siblings who were near the lake on May 7 led to the update that Bushman's family had been waiting for.

Lynette Melvin was walking with her sister when she tripped on something, she told "Impact." Her sister looked back and saw it was a skull, she said.

"We kind of start digging around in the sand a little bit, [and] uncovering it, because we're kind of under the impression it's sheep bones and a sheep skull. And then after a couple of minutes, it became very apparent when we saw a jawbone with intact teeth that had a filling," Melvin told "Impact."

PHOTO: Lynette Melvin stumbled upon the remains of Thomas Erndt, a man who drowned in Lake Mead in 2002, while walking near the lake.
Lynette Melvin stumbled upon the remains of Thomas Erndt, a man who drowned in Lake Mead in 2002, while walking near the lake.
ABC News

Investigators recovered the remains and a DNA test matched it to Erndt a month later.

Bushman, a married mother of four, said her family has felt true closure from the discovery.

"I think my first feeling was like, 'wow, I'm so glad he was there just where he wanted to be'. And then my second feeling was, 'wow, I really have closure now,'" she said.

PHOTO: Tina Bushman shows childhood photos of her and her father Thomas Erndt.
Tina Bushman shows childhood photos of her and her father Thomas Erndt.
ABC News

Melvin also said she felt bittersweet that Erndt's family was able to have some peace after all of these years.

"I'm happy about that. Not happy for the discovery itself, and not happy for the grief that they're feeling, but happy that they have closure," she said.

ABC News' Candace Smith Chekwa and Lauren DiMundo contributed to this report.

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