Fact Checker: Is Lake Tahoe filled with hundreds of preserved bodies?
Target shooting follow-up
Another source got in touch with Fact Checker after last week's column that determined target shooting with standard ammunition can indeed start wildfires:
Greg Liddicoat, a retired deputy state fire marshal, is researching wildfires caused by standard ammunition for the Nevada chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators. He says standard ammo can start wildfires, and he's personally traced fire patterns back to their sources and found bullets on the ground.
Although he's still running tests, he says fires can happen when a lead bullet superheats upon striking a rock or steel. If it lands in the dirt, no fire. But if it ricochets and lands atop cheatgrass, it can start a fire.He researched all human-caused fires on BLM land from 2000 to 2010. The biggest reason was target shooting (34.1 percent), followed by arson (15 percent), campfires (3.2 percent), smoking (2.5 percent) and other reasons at even smaller percentages.
Lake Tahoe has been a dumping ground for the bodies of Chinese railroad workers and victims of mob killings.
Donald Christopher Windecker's body was recovered and identified this month 17 years after the Reno city planner died in a Tahoe diving accident.
When such stories happen, myths about bodies at Lake Tahoe also resurface. They often relate to the facts that dead bodies tend not to float there and, because of the cold temperatures, they stay preserved longer.
Jennifer Hollander explains why they often don't float. She's a biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
"All of our bodies have bacteria that live in them," she said. "They are anaerobic, meaning they thrive without oxygen.
"When we die, our bodies stop breathing and the bacteria kick into gear breaking down our bodies. It's called putrefaction. The bacteria produce gases as waste: carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulfide.
"In warm water, the bacteria will still work just fine, so gases will build up and bodies will float. In cold water, the lower temperatures make them relatively inactive. It doesn't kill them, but they can't grow. They become inactive."
Something else that can break down dead bodies in Lake Tahoe is marine life, which brings to mind the not-tasteful quote from the book "Animal Crossing -- Wild World": "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Give a fish a man, and he'll eat for weeks!"
This was not the case with Windecker, who was covered head to toe in a wet suit with gloves and boots. His body was protected from marine life and subject only to the slow work of cold bacteria.
Bryan Golmitz of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office said Windecker's body was well preserved after 17 years -- "He looked 90 percent like a person, the physical form was there, he was very present."
Tidbit: The submersible that found Windecker's body is 24 x 10 x 10 inches. Think of a box of copier paper. Golmitz says its light shines about two to three feet wide.
Two points apply for our purposes: Bodies in Tahoe tend not to float but they do not stay preserved and are eventually broken down by their own bacteria as well as by marine organisms.
Now for the two myths: Lake Tahoe is a dumping ground for victims of mob hits and Chinese workers.
Both are repeated in numerous places, but both also appear in one message at Snopes.com, the urban myth checking website.
A person who says he was born in Carson City and lived there his whole life writes, regarding the mob dumping bodies, "My grandparents lived in Tahoe for 30+ years, and Grandma would always say that back in Tahoe's hey day when the Rat Pack was running around there, the mafia they were connected to would do the same things to people they wanted to 'get rid of.'"
Lake Tahoe expert and author Mark McLaughlin has his doubts.
He notes that during Frank Sinatra's time at Tahoe in the early 1960s, he and his associates were scrutinized closely by the authorities, making killings and body disposal risky.
Besides, McLaughlin says, the mob was more focused in Southern Nevada and "it's easier to bury a body out in the desert, which precludes the risk of the body washing up on the shore."
He said Tahoe killings could be possible but no one has come forward with even basic details that could be investigated, such as who was killed.
Then there's the story of Chinese laborers. Edited from the Snopes forum:
"My whole life, I have heard rumors that there are a lot of human bodies that have been dumped in Lake Tahoe. The one that sticks out for me is that in Truckee, they had brought in hundreds of Chinese immigrants to build the railroads. When all was said and done, they didn't want to have to deal with paying them and giving them promised citizenship so they took the immigrants out to the middle of the lake and tied them together in big groups and weighed them down and dumped them in.
"So the rumor states that not only are there hundreds of people down there all tied together but they are perfectly preserved because of the cold temperatures. It has been said that some independent filmmaker got ahold of some deep sea diving machine and found where all these people were at and went down to see for himself so he could film a documentary on it. When he came back up, he said he would not film it because the world was not ready to see what the U.S government did to these poor people."
Other versions name the filmmaker as Jacques Cousteau, who is reported to have said "the world is not ready" for what is down there or, alternately, "a stop was quickly put on the mission by some powerful people."
Former Nevada state historian Guy Rocha wrote in 2006 in the Reno Gazette-Journal:
"The truth is that Philippe Cousteau, Jacques' grandson, visited Lake Tahoe in April 2002, but there is no record of Jacques seeing the jewel of the Sierra, much less his being involved in an underwater expedition."
Stephen Drew, retired chief curator for the California State Railroad Museum, says, "I don't believe there is any credence in the rumor you are trying to track down -- in fact, far from it."
He points out that the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and "Surviving photographic documentation and (Central Pacific Railroad) Chinese payrolls confirm that large numbers of Chinese were still on the CPRR payrolls as successful track workers well into the 1870s."
In other words, if the railroad companies were killing off Chinese workers by the hundreds to avoid paying them, it's unlikely so many would still be working for them after construction was finished.
McLaughlin also finds this rumor preposterous. He points out that the railroads were happy to pay the Chinese laborers because "they were a reliable workforce, so why alienate them? Even if it was just three or four guys you didn't pay, that (news) would ripple through the workforce."
But McLaughlin has another reason for dismissing the rumor.
"If you've got Chinese working on the construction of your railroad up around Truckee near the pass, why take them all the way to Lake Tahoe?" he asked. "Why not take them to Donner Lake, which is much closer? It's deep, it's cold, it's hard to recover a body from."
In "The Godfather 2," a character is killed on Lake Tahoe and dumped overboard. Is that where the rumor comes from?
Chinese immigrants in Truckee were targeted by the 601 vigilante group and the Caucasian League. Fires were set, and the Chinese were told to leave on their own or they would be shipped out in boxcars. Is this railroad link the inspiration for the Tahoe tale of murder?
Hard to tell, but if hundreds of bodies are down there, no one has found them -- despite the huge money-making possibilities from such a historic find.
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