California and Nevada's Lake Tahoe is known for its pristine waters, ski resorts, casinos — and a few urban legends. The lake has its own Loch Ness-style monster, "Tahoe Tessie." But another legend has grown over the years: Because bodies in Lake Tahoe supposedly don’t decompose, people who either drown in the lake or are killed and thrown in look just like they did on the surface. (Spoilers for “The Godfather Part II” incoming: Fredo Corleone’s body isn’t being found anytime soon.)
First things first: Local authorities have repeatedly confirmed that it's incredibly difficult to recover any kind of body from Lake Tahoe, and that the bodies of many drowning victims still lay under the water. To make matters worse, the lake's frigid temperature means that bodies don’t float back to the surface like they do in warmer waters.
As an unconscious or dying person's lungs fill with water, the body naturally sinks. But then, as a body begins to decompose, bacteria in the gut release gasses, causing the now-bloated corpse to resurface. In Lake Tahoe, where the water's temperature beneath the surface sits in the chilly mid-50s even in summer, the cold temperatures slow the decomposition process significantly. With less gas being produced, bodies in the lake almost never resurface, which does lend a bit of credence to the theory.
And because the cold waters slow the decomposition in the same way that a freezer in a morgue would, bodies do indeed remain preserved for longer. For instance, a Reno man, Donald Christopher Windecker, was quite preserved when his body was recovered in 2011, some 17 years after he drowned while scuba diving. But Windecker’s scuba gear also helped protect him from non-bacteria scavengers that would have otherwise fed on the body. It's widely assumed that most other bodies — mobsters or not — will eventually decompose regardless of scuba gear, although how long that process takes is unknown.
Lake Tahoe's geography makes it even more difficult for a diver to search for a drowning victim or a dead mafioso. The high altitude of the Sierra Nevada Mountains means divers must spend more time re-acclimating themselves as they resurface from the water to help prevent decompression sickness, commonly called "the bends." The lake is also the second deepest in the United States, with an average depth of 1,000 feet (305 meters), right about the deepest any human has ever dived. But 1,000 feet is just Tahoe's average depth—the U.S. Geological Survey lists the lake’s deepest point at 1,645 feet (501 meters).
Back to the legend around mobsters, despite numerous searches, no evidence has been found of any such criminals hiding in the water's depths. Another common myth about a massacre of Chinese railroad workers also has no historical support. A 2016 effort using both divers and remotely operated vehicles working like drones in the water from the Undersea Voyager Project discovered no new bodies. Divers cleaning the lake of trash in 2022 also told USA Today that they found nothing.
Indeed, it’s not particularly uncommon for search-and-recovery experts to come up empty-handed. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, a retired sergeant at the Placer County Sheriff's Office reported that finding a body in Lake Tahoe was like finding a needle in a haystack. The article profiled one such search-and-recovery expert, Keith Cormican, and how he used a remotely operated vehicle to recover bodies, not always with success.
As an example, while searching for the body of a 1996 drowning victim, David Ward, Cormican used his tools to scour a small, alpine lake just south of Lake Tahoe called Fallen Leaf Lake. The article reported Cormican traversed the lake, which is tiny compared to Tahoe, over 100 times in three separate trips. He discovered two other bodies, but not Ward’s.
At the end of the day, at least one or two murder victims likely lay at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Whether they would be recognized as mobsters is an entirely different question.