For thirty years, I covered crime and punishment as a television reporter in Las Vegas. Naturally, organized crime cases were part of that coverage.
But, along with crime and courts, I also had another, very unusual beat: atomic testing.
In the mid 1980s, before the US and Russia signed a treaty banning underground nuclear detonations (above ground testing had ended in 1963) there were usually several atom bomb tests each year in Nevada.
In 1992, underground nuclear explosions of any kind in the US and Russia were banned by treaty. The Nevada Test Site began to take on new, non-nuclear missions, and some retired cold-warriors came up with the idea of an Atomic Testing Museum to tell the story of this unusual and historic test area.
As a reporter who’d covered atomic testing, I was only too happy to help when I was approached by a museum contractor who was trying to find out if anyone in the Las Vegas area might have any of the original mannequins that had been used in above ground testing (see photo). Mannequins, or dummies, were often used in these tests, to simulate the effects that nuclear weapons might have on real people.
I did a story about how a group of these test mannequins, placed in mock houses and cars, had been blasted by a bomb detonation in 1953. Incredibly, the surviving mannequins were then displayed in the window of the J.C. Penney store in downtown Las Vegas at the corner of 6th and Fremont. What happened to the test dummies after that is a mystery; no records exist to show whether they were destroyed or preserved.
After my TV news story aired, a woman called me from the small town of Glendale, Nevada where she had a little museum with a one-room schoolhouse. She thought two mannequins in her museum might have come from the batch displayed at J.C. Penney in the 1950s. Although she’d dressed the dummies in costumes to resemble residents of the old-west, she said there were markings on the backs of the mannequins that said “Property of AEC” and “Yucca Flat Range”.
But when I and the Atomic Testing Museum contractor went to examine the Glendale mannequins we quickly discovered that despite the 1950s-era markings on their backs, these mannequins were too new to have been used back then. Also — there were made by the Vine company of Hollywood, California, and not the L.A. Darling company which had manufactured the dummies used in the actual bomb test.
Ultimately, we realized that the Glendale dummies were cast offs from a TV show called “Crime Story” that had been filmed in Las Vegas in 1988. The episode in which the dummies appear involved a shootout between some Mob guys and some cops in downtown Las Vegas. Fleeing the cops, the Mob guys drive hours into the desert before finding what they think is an abandoned farm house where they spend the night. When they wake up the next morning, the see all the mannequins in the house and realize with alarm they’re on the Nevada Test Site and could be nuked at any moment.
I won’t tell you how the episode ends in case you want to watch it yourself. But the story does mark an unlikely connection between fictional organized crime and real nuclear testing. And what happened to those real test dummies that made their way to the J.C. Penney display window in 1953? That remains a mystery to this day.