EXCLUSIVE: Historic drought at Lake Mead brings closure for Lorena woman

Father's remains found 20 years after disappearance in reservoir near Las Vegas
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Posted at 6:10 PM, Nov 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-04 08:33:47-04

LAKE MEAD, Nev. — The historic drought out west is leading to gruesome discoveries of what lies beneath the surface of Lake Mead.

Now, thanks to DNA testing, the latest bones recovered are giving a Central Texas family some long awaited closure.

Parts of the lake are hitting rock bottom, revealing its haunting past: human bones sunk to the bottom.

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Thomas Erndt disappeared in 2002 during a late-night swim in Lake Mead near Las Vegas. Search and rescue crews never found his body.

Some point to the mob operating on the nearby Las Vegas strip.

The lake would be a quick way to get rid of a body.

Investigators say one of the skeletons tells the story of a man shot in the head and stuffed in a barrel.

But for the fifth set of bones found this year alone, it's a different story.

An old photo from 2002 captures a good day when 15-year-old Tina and her dad, 42-year-old Thomas Erndt were doing what they loved.

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Erndt and his daughter, Tina Bushman, had a family tradition of boating and swimming on Lake Mead. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said the reservoir to the Hoover Dam has reached historic lows due to drought. Now, hidden secrets such as human remains have resurfaced decades after being seen last.

But a late-night adventure on the lake would be their last together.

Tina Bushman spoke to 25 News in an exclusive interview.

Bushman, who now lives in Lorena, just outside Waco, remembers that windy night like it was yesterday.

Her dad was keeping up a family tradition of a late-night swim in the pitch-black lake, with Tina and her brother alongside.

"He jumped in and he was swimming around," Bushman recalled. "Maybe like a minute later he tries to swim back and I remember his hand kind of like brushed the ladder."

The boat started to drift away, with Erndt still in the water.

Erndt asked his kids to move the boat towards him but they had trouble.

"We couldn't get it to start and in the meantime we had heard 'help," Bushman explained.

Her dad was struggling to keep his head above water.

"We finally got it started and we were circling around and we heard 'help' one more time and that was it," Bushman told 25 News.

Search and rescue crews never found his body.

Years after the tragedy, Bushman would wrap herself up in a quilt, her prized possession, patched together with her dad's old t-shirts.

"I slept with it for years," Bushman said.

It is something she can pass down to her own children who never got to meet their grandfather.

20 years would go by before Bushman got the call she had long given up on.

"I answer it and she's like 'I'm from the coroners office in Las Vegas and there were two women kayaking and happened to stumble upon some remains," Bushman was shocked to learn,

Sisters Lyndsey and Lynette Melvin stumbled upon her father's skeletal remains, partially buried on the shore.

The Melvin sisters spoke with our sister station in Las Vegas about making the shocking discovery this spring.

"Kind of just parked our paddle boards, walked on the shoreline and we saw what looked like a stark white rock," the girls explained.

That rock ended up being a skull with teeth still intact.

After DNA tests and a month of waiting on the results, Bushman got the news.

It was a match.

They found her dad's remains.

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Six bodies have been found so far this year including Erndt's. Some point to the historic mob ties in nearby Las Vegas as the lake was known to be a quick way to dispose of a body.

Her immediate reaction: "Wow! He really was in his favorite place. He wanted to be cremated and thrown in the lake which is kind of ironic."

She has advice for others hoping to find someone who's missing.

"Just have hope," Bushman said. "I always felt my dad was kind of with me, you know, kind of like an angel."

Closure, two decades later.

The family plans to cremate Erndt and as Bushman describes it, "throw him back in" to the lake.

They're hoping to do that in February, which would have been his 64th birthday.

Lake Mead is at a historic low according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The side of the mountains around the lake are now white where the water level used to be.

More than 25 million people depend on the lake for their water supply.

Some experts believe as the water levels keep dropping more bodies will be found.