History Faculty News Feature
Like a modern-day Dante, University of West Georgia alumnus Matthew O’Brien first descended into the underbelly of Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago. The author later chronicled his journey in “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas,” taking readers through the pseudo-purgatory flood channels and introducing them to the subterranean souls inhabiting them.
“These tunnels aren’t very visible as you’re walking or driving around town,” O’Brien observed. “I would’ve never thought about going down there if I hadn’t read in the morning paper about the murderer Timmy ‘TJ’ Weber who used these underground tunnels to evade police.”
This labyrinth of channels, meant to drain rainwater, was constructed in the 1990s to protect the city from flash floods. They run for roughly 600 miles through the Las Vegas valley, with a few going under the Strip.
A managing editor for Las Vegas CityLife, O’Brien began to wonder what could be in those storm drains. Like any good journalist, he followed his instinct.
“I thought maybe there’d be some wildlife, graffiti or interesting debris that washed in,” he recalled. “When we discovered people down there, it was a big revelation – not just to me and the other reporter but to the city and the whole world. No one really knew about these people.”
O’Brien estimated there were at least 300 homeless denizens underneath Sin City. There was Shaggy, who struggled with addiction, and his mom, One-Shoe Sue; Ande, who has a doctorate in organizational behavior and human factors; Pretty Boy Steve, a former front-desk clerk, and his girlfriend, Kat; and Ricky Lee, who the author described as “part ruffian, part poet.”
The tunnels became an international media sensation and soon received attention from such networks as CNN, Fox, BBC and Al Jazeera. O’Brien was hopeful the exposure would lead to a nonprofit organization taking action to help the inhabitants, but he was fearful the police would force them out.