30 years later | Missed signals lead to explosive ending
August 27, 2010
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – By the time Special Agent Joe Cook landed his FBI helicopter in the Heavenly Valley parking lot, around 11 p.m. on Aug. 26, 1980, it had already been more than 17 hours since a 1,000-pound bomb was found with an extortion note on the second floor of Harvey’s Resort Hotel in Stateline.
Special Agent Nicholas V. O’Hara arrived with three canvas bags from Harvey’s Inn, filled with stacks of paper cut in the shape of money and topped with a few $100 bills supplied by Harvey’s management. The bags were loaded into the helicopter and Cook was directed to go to the Lake Tahoe Airport, fill the helicopter with fuel, and wait at a public telephone to be contacted by the extortionists, who were offering to supply instructions on how to move the bomb safely in exchange for $3 million in cash.
Shortly after midnight on Aug. 27, 1980, Cook got a call from a young man who told him, “Your instructions are located beneath the table in front of you. You have three minutes,” then hung up.
Cook looked around the area, and finally found a metal plate taped below the pay-phone, concealing a letter that instructed him to follow U.S. Highway 50 at least 15 miles west from the airport.
Cook took off and flew along the winding course of Highway 50 over Echo Summit, to what he estimated to be 15 miles, but he could not find the strobe light that the letter said would be his signal to land. He continued to circle the area for more than an hour, then returned to the Lake Tahoe Airport and waited by the phone again for 45 minutes, in case the extortionists would call back. But they never did.
The FBI contacted Nevada Gov. Robert F. List, who made a public appeal around 2:30 a.m. for the extortionists to contact authorities again. Using cryptic language that the extortionists might understand, Gov. List requested a “clarifying message due to failure to enlighten, and in confusion in following the previous directions.”
Meanwhile, about 25 miles west of the Lake Tahoe Airport, John Birges, the mastermind of the extortion plot, waited in a clearing off of Ice House Road with his 18-year-old son, Jim.
The mountain air was getting cold in the hours after midnight, and it became increasingly apparent that something had gone wrong and the helicopter with the $3 million in ransom money would not arrive. They began removing bullets from the guns they had brought with them, using the powder to start a fire to keep warm.
About 20 miles to the south, John Birges Jr. was parked in his father’s Volvo in a clearing near Ham’s Station on Highway 88, waiting for his father to fly overhead in the stolen helicopter and drop off the ransom money when John Jr. signaled him with a strobe light connected to the car’s battery.
By 5 a.m., he realized that the helicopter wasn’t coming, so John Birges Jr. drove back up to the Cameron Park Airport, where his father’s girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, had been parked since the previous evening, waiting for the helicopter to land. On the way there, he struck a deer, denting the left front fender of his father’s car.
When John Jr. arrived in Cameron Park, Williams told him she had heard a message from the Nevada governor on the radio, asking them to make contact again. Williams then followed John Jr. in her Toyota Celica back to the site where he had dropped off his father and brother the night before.
As John Jr. careened up the winding Ice House Road, he barely made it around a hairpin turn. Williams did not make it, smashing her Celica into the side of the mountain. John Jr. picked up Williams, then met his father and brother, who were walking down the road from the clearing.
After going back to pick up the strobe light and guns they had left behind, they drove Williams to Marshall Hospital in Placerville, to be treated for facial contusions and a bloody nose she sustained in the crash.
At 6:43 a.m., after leaving Williams at the hospital, they stopped at a nearby Beacon gas station, where John Jr., at his father’s direction, used a pay-phone to call the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Stateline. He told sheriff’s dispatcher Kathleen Jo Cook to flip switch No. 5 on the bomb’s bank of switches, then await further instructions.
The switch would not actually do anything; they just needed to stall for time until they could arrange another ransom drop.
Around 7 a.m., John Jr. was speeding down Highway 50 to get back home to Fresno County, where he was supposed to be at work that day. West of Shingle Springs, CHP officer James C. Bergenholtz pulled over the Volvo and issued the 19-year-old a citation. Bergenholtz noted on the citation that there were two male passengers in the Volvo in addition to the driver.
When they got back home to Clovis, Calif., John Jr. went to work, and Jim used his red Toyota pickup to drive his father back to pick up Williams at the hospital.
On their way to Placerville, they stopped at 3:51 p.m. at a pay-phone in front of Antonio’s Restaurant in Ione, Calif., where Jim Birges made another call, at his father’s direction, to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, telling them to await further instructions.
This might buy them some time to arrange another ransom drop. After their string of bad luck that morning, they might still be able to salvage the plan and get the $3 million.
A few minutes later, the hourly news came on the truck’s radio, and John and Jim Birges heard the report that the bomb at Harvey’s had just been detonated in an attempt to disarm it.
Depressed, John Birges told his son that he had nothing to live for any more.
They arrived at the hospital to pick up Williams, and they saw a replay of the explosion on television. As they contacted the CHP to file an accident report, and arranged to have Williams’ smashed Celica towed from Ice House Road, John Birges could at least take comfort in the knowledge that his bomb-making skills were now legendary, and there was no way the authorities could trace the bomb back to him.
He would have all the time in the world to steal some more explosives, build another bomb, and try the whole scheme again.
Or so he thought.
– See the conclusion of this story in the Weekend edition of the Tribune.