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Human remains found in Lake Mead identified as 1974 drowning victim

Drought reveals remains at Lake Mead
Drought reveals long-lost remains at Lake Mead 02:56

Five months after a diver found what appeared to be a human bone near shore in the western fork of Lake Mead, officials have identified the remains as belonging to a Nevada man who drowned nearly 49 years ago.

The coroner's office in Clark County confirmed that the skeletal remains belonged to Donald Smith, a former resident of North Las Vegas. In a news release, officials said that Smith drowned in the reservoir in April 1974, when he was 39 years old. 

The coroner identified the remains using DNA analysis and reports from the original incident, and have determined that the man's official cause of death was drowning. His death was ruled an accident, according to the news release.

Buoys that read 'No Boats' lay on cracked dry earth where water once was at Lake Mead, Nevada, on July 23, 2022. Getty Images

Skeletal remains now linked to Smith were discovered by a concession dive operator on Oct. 17, 2022. While diving in Callville Bay — a frequented tourist spot along the stretch of Lake Mead closest to Las Vegas, which has a campground nearby as well as a marina offering boat rentals — the operator reportedly came across an object that looked like a human bone, a spokesperson for the National Park Service said in a statement released at the time. 

The park service then sent a team of divers to conduct a wider search of the bay and verified "the finding of human skeletal remains," the spokesperson said, adding that authorities even then did not suspect foul play. Two days later, on Oct. 19, additional remains were found in the area and later determined to "belong to the same person as those found on Oct. 17," Clark County officials said in their release identifying Smith.

The discovery of Smith's remains marked at least the sixth of its kind in Lake Mead's recreational areas just last year. In May, visiting boaters in Hemenway Harbor spotted a barrel carrying a body that police later identified as a shooting victim who was likely killed decades ago. The park service confirmed the first discovery of human skeletal remains found in Callville Bay, about 25 miles from the harbor, soon after that. 

Those remains were ultimately identified by the Clark County coroner as belonging to Thomas Erndt, a former Las Vegas resident who officials believe drowned in 2002, when he was 42 years old. The cause and manner of Erndt's death remains undetermined, according to county officials. 

Partial human skeletal remains were also found near the shore in Lake Mead in July, and twice in August near a recreational swimming area. The Clark County coroner has confirmed that remains initially found near the shoreline of the reservoir's Boulder Beach on July 25 of last year belong to the same person as the remains found in the same area on Aug. 6 and Aug. 16. The coroner's office is still working to identify those remains, officials said.

Clark County has noted that identifying human remains relies on examinations to estimate age and physical characteristics, as well as DNA collections, "the quality of which can be greatly affected by time and environmental conditions." The determinations are then cross-referenced with details about people reported missing over the years.

The pattern of findings came as water levels at the sprawling reservoir plummeted to alarming record-lows after decades of drought and over-consumption. Alongside viral satellite photos shared by NASA, which gave a stark side-by-side comparison of the reservoir's shrinking shorelines over the course of two decades, came a number of others that showed exposed  "bathtub rings," and ancient volcanic rock.

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