Barrel containing human remains discovered in Lake Mead

Authorities say a barrel carrying human remains has been discovered in Lake Mead on May 1. Boaters spotted the barrel Sunday afternoon and the National Park Service was alerted.

The agency said in a statement rangers searched an area near Hemenway Harbor and found the barrel with skeletal remains. They are working with Las Vegas police.

The Clark County coroner’s office will determine the person's identity.

Shawna Hollister told KLAS-TV in Las Vegas that she and her husband were docking their boat when they heard a woman scream. They then saw the body, which also had a shirt and belt visible.

The barrel might have been visible due to Lake Mead’s low water level from the ongoing drought.

Las Vegas Police finished up an autopsy, confirming the remains found were the result of a homicide. They believe the victim was killed in the 1980s.

"When they walked up closer to the barrel, they looked inside and they could see there were human remains," said Lt. Ray Spencer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. "Because of the injuries the victim received, we are confident this is a homicide investigation. I'm withholding, intentionally, certain details of the investigation that we are for certain this is a homicide investigation."

Spencer says his team has the challenge of figuring out just who this person was.

"We have not identified the victim," he said. "It's going to be an extremely challenging case for an investigation to begin. Because one, we have to determine if can we even extract DNA."

Detectives believe the victim was killed around the 1980s because of the personal items still intact that they found inside the barrel. Even with the remains and personal items, it doesn't make identification a quick and easy process.

"You have to think to the 1980s. None of the databases that are in existence today, even existed back then. So it's not like we're going to have this person's DNA on file," Spencer said.

Las Vegas Police will have to work backward to see if they can make a genealogical connection and possibly work off of the missing persons list from that time.

"It's going to be a challenge for investigators because trying to identify someone who's been in the lake for that long – it's going to be very hard to do," Spencer said. 

The water level was higher when the body was dropped 40 years ago, so the barrel didn't just wash up onshore because of drought. The water level has receded, revealing that barrel.

As the water level continues to recede, Spencer says there is a possibility more bodies could be discovered.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This story was reported on from Phoenix, Arizona.

More on Lake Mead and Lake Powell

A massive drought-starved reservoir on the Colorado River has become so depleted that Las Vegas now is pumping water from deeper within Lake Mead where other states downstream don’t have access.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream are the largest human-made reservoirs in the U.S., part of a system that provides water to more than 40 million people, tribes, agriculture and industry in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and across the southern border in Mexico.