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General News

The Ghosts of Lake Mead, the Mafia, and Greek-American Johnny Pappas

LAS VEGAS – In the last month, the news of the discovery of human remains in Lake Mead near Las Vegas, the level of which is falling due to the widespread drought, bringing to the surface macabre findings from the activities of the mafia, has shocked the local public.

The speculation surrounding the identity of one of the corpses found inside a barrel has been in the news lately. The New York Times on May 20 asked if he was the mobster who disappeared after stealing from the Stardust casino, a hotel manager pursued by the Chicago mafia, or the victim of a biker gang trying to take over mafia territory. Or perhaps some intoxicated person who fell off a boat and drowned in the lake.

One of the most rational approaches to identifying the unfortunate man comes from local Nevada Independent journalist John L. Smith, who claims the body belongs to a man named John Pappas.

Greek-American Johnny Pappas (Yiannis Panagiotakos) was a family friend of the journalist and a strong supporter of the Democrats locally in the early 70’s. He worked in various casinos in Las Vegas and had many friends due to his extroverted nature. He had moved to Chicago a few years earlier.

Pappas also had connections in the infamous “Chicago Outfit,” a mafia organization, of which several Greeks were significant members, including a prominent figure, Gus Alex. In the 1970s, Pappas found himself running several well-known casinos and hotels in the greater Las Vegas area.

Misha McBride looks at a formally sunken boat now on cracked earth hundreds of feet from what is now the shoreline on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, May 9. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Most of them were owned by the businessman and Vietnam veteran Allen Glick, whose name was later found on several lists of FBI agents investigating organized crime.

During a raid by the authorities at the Stardust hotel owned by Glick and managed by Pappas, the head of the slots department, Jay Vandermark, suddenly disappeared, was later found, according to unconfirmed reports, in Mexico, and then in Costa Rica where he was murdered.

On the night of August 18, 1976, Pappas left home to meet two men who told him they were interested in buying his boat, which was moored at Lake Mead. Pappas’ wife later told police her husband had left for Jo-Jo’s on Las Vegas Boulevard to close the deal.

Pappas, however, never returned home, as Smith noted, adding that his car was found three days later in the parking lot of a hotel with the keys in the ignition.

Local newspapers published articles with the few available facts and Pappas’ connections with the mafia were hardly mentioned at all. One week after his disappearance, a police chief said there was no indication that Pappas was alive and the story began to fade.

The following month, police officially said they did not expect to find him alive. This was followed by absolute silence from journalists and even those who knew Johnny.

By 1983, Johnny’s disappearance had long been overshadowed by other news: Murders of underworld members, bombings, and political scandals. References to the name of the missing Greek-American were now rare.

Until 1985, Pappas was lost to history. Only one report was made by journalist Ned Day, who wrote in an article about Glick’s relationship with Pappas and that the latter requested a meeting with his boss a few hours before his disappearance, but the meeting never took place.

For years, authorities attributed Pappas’ disappearance to Chicago Outfit’s Tony Spilotro, which seemed obvious. Spilotro was suspected of more than 20 homicides, including the murder of Vandermark and others who were potentially weak links in the Las Vegas mafia.

By the summer of 1983, Glick had retired from the Las Vegas casino industry. Even then, the waters of Lake Mead were still at normal levels. Spilotro died in 1986 and became a legend in film thanks to Martin Scorsese and Joe Pesci. Glick died in 2021, after living a long and comfortable life in La Jolla.

Police officers with years of experience in the field of organized crime suspect that the man in the first barrel in Lake Mead may be Vandermark. But there is a second version that suggests the body of the man with the bullet in the head is Johnny Pappas.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, Nevada Independent.

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