Some homicide cases remain baffling—and unsolved—for years. Some are never closed. That’s the situation with three female bodies discovered beneath the floor of the Mojave Desert northeast of Las Vegas. Investigators believe, because of the circumstances, they most probably were the victims of human traffickers.
It was a windy afternoon in 1996 when the single grave was found by off-road riders who smelled a foul odor.
Detectives arriving at the scene first discovered one body, that of a woman in her late 30s to early 40s with shoulder-length dark hair. But, then, one detective, Dave Hatch, decided to dig deeper and discovered two more bodies—one woman and two girls, all Asian.
I was at my desk in the newsroom of the Las Vegas Sun when I heard the homicide call come across the police scanner. It was morning and I had just come off my early morning deadline for the second edition of the paper. So, a photographer and I hurried out and headed to the desert, near what at the time was the Government Wash, on the side of a road that leads to Lake Mead.
The two young victims were much shorter in height and were thought to be teenage girls. The bodies had been in the desert about a month, buried in what Detective Hatch called a “beehive grave” that looked like nothing but a mound of dirt—until they started digging.
Autopsy results revealed two of the victims had died from strangulation, the other from a fractured skull and suffocation.
Former homicide Sgt. Bill Keeton, who investigated 576 cases before retiring from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in 1998, described the scene as one of the more grisly in his 25-year career.
When asked why this case stands out, Keeton said, “Human beings in green garbage bags, thrown on top of each other -- it seemed like they were being thrown away like garbage,” he said, pointing out that the bodies were buried just 200 yards from the Clark County sanitation reclamation plant. “It was a disgusting scene.”
Inside the trash bags with the bodies were clothing items, some in children’s sizes.
“After we found the body of the woman,” said Keeton, “(Detective) Hatch got the first girl. We thought that was it. But Dave kept digging. He stayed with it until he found the third body.”
Crime-scene analysts lifted fingerprints from each victim. Then detectives ran the prints through a national database. Nothing came back. Out of local options, police issued a nationwide bulletin and checked with other law enforcement agencies in the area to see if missing-person reports had been issued for the women. Again, nothing.
It was as if the woman and teenagers had never existed.
The lack of evidence in this case pointed to a probable scenario, Keeton said: “I think they were killed by foreign nationals who have very few ties to Vegas.”
Detectives were forced to surmise, he said, that the women were taken to Las Vegas illegally, probably by a human trafficker, to work as street prostitutes or inside massage parlors that front for illegal brothels.
As for eventually solving murder cases like this one, Keeton said, “It’s very difficult, especially when the victims have no family that we know of and no one came forward to claim them. It’s purely speculation, but they were probably smuggled into the country, they balked at becoming prostitutes, and they were killed.”
“I don’t think,” he added, “it will ever be solved.”