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'This body may never be identified': Challenges of identifying body buried in Lake Mead for decades

Las Vegas police believe a body found inside a barrel in the newly exposed bottom of Lake Mead was that of a man who had been shot.

PHOENIX — Police in Las Vegas uncovered a potential crime with the help of climate change.

Lake Mead, the largest U.S water reservoir located on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has faced declining water levels for years.

The water levels are now so low, that more of the lakeshore can be seen and are uncovering what was once hidden.

RELATED: Lake Mead water levels hit lowest point in 51 years

On Sunday, a woman walking on the newly-revealed mud spotted a rusted-out metal barrel, and inside the barrel, she told Las Vegas TV stations that she could see bones and ratty men’s clothing.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department released a statement Tuesday that said the person in the barrel had a gunshot wound and that the department would investigate the body as a homicide. 

RELATED: Body found in barrel was of man who was shot, police say

Police estimate the body had been in the lake since the early 1980s or possibly even earlier.

Dr. Rebecca Hsu, a forensic pathologist in the Valley for more than 20 years, said finding out who the person in the barrel is will be difficult.

“This body may never be identified,” Hsu said.

Hsu said identifying the remains will rely on the condition of the body. Since the barrel had rusted through in its decades underwater, a high level of degradation is likely.

“Water is a degrading factor, animals, fish, bacteria,” Hsu said. “Just the bacteria from within your body alone, things that are natural, would be enough to deteriorate you over that kind of period of time.”

If police are able to find identifying pieces in the remains, they will then take a look at who went missing in the time period they are investigating.

“Hopefully there will be something that’s a hit,” Hsu said. “Someone who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. If there is a full skeleton, they may be able to judge a few things: male/female, approximate height.”

It may be even more difficult to figure out who is responsible for the victim’s death but there is a better chance now than back when it happened.

“They probably have a better chance of being discovered, in terms of who they are, now, than if they had actually been found in the 70s,” Hsu said.

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