30 years later | A look back at the extortion bombing plot at Harvey’s Resort Hotel
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – John Birges had all the makings of an arch-villain from a James Bond movie: He was a brilliant inventor and businessman with a fondness for betting large sums of money at the blackjack tables; he was a ruthless perfectionist who would not tolerate weakness in those around him, even his own family; he even had an authentic Hungarian accent.
And, like an over-the-top movie antagonist, he would construct an unstoppable doomsday weapon that he planned to use as the centerpiece in an overly complicated plot to extort $3 million from Harvey’s Resort Hotel in Stateline.
No one knows exactly when Birges made the transition from retired landscape contractor and restaurant owner to criminal mastermind, but his plan began to materialize around October of 1979, when he rented a studio apartment, number 76, at the Aspen Grove Apartments in Stateline, just a mile north of Harvey’s.
He split his time between the Tahoe apartment and the home he shared with his girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, at 1590 North Fowler Ave. in Clovis, Calif.
He spent much of the next six months at Tahoe gambling at Harvey’s, where he had been known as a “high roller” at the blackjack tables for the past several years. He had long since gone through his retirement savings and the insurance money he had received after his Villa Basque restaurant in Fresno burned down. Toward the end of his stay at Tahoe, he had to borrow money from his 18-year-old son just to pay his rent. During this period, when his plans to get rich playing blackjack failed to work out, he developed a plan to extort money from the casino, and used his time there to observe the operations of the staff, the timing of security shift changes, and he even measured the height of the curb outside the lobby entrance, for when he would someday need to roll a bomb into the hotel.
In the winter of 1980, Birges told his sons, 18-year-old Jim and 19-year-old John Jr., about his plans to build a bomb and extort money from Harvey’s, but they did not think he was serious.
It wasn’t until the night of June 10, 1980, that his plans began to crystallize into reality. Birges convinced his sons to help him steal about 1,000 pounds of explosives from a construction site at the Helms Power Plant near the Wishon Reservoir in eastern Fresno County. They returned to the house in Clovis and stashed the cases of Hercules Unigel dynamite sticks in the walk-in freezer that Birges had built in his garage.
Birges spent the next two months constructing a bomb, with multiple triggering mechanisms, large enough to contain the stolen explosives. But when the device was finally complete and ready to be delivered to Harvey’s, his sons refused to participate in bringing the bomb to the casino, thinking the plan was too dangerous.
So, on Aug. 24, 1980, John Birges called Willis “Bill” Brown, a former employee at his landscaping business who had been looking for work. Brown and his son-in-law, Terry Lee Hall, drove over to Birges’ house in Clovis, and they agreed to help him deliver his “machine” to Harvey’s, with the promise that they would each receive $2,000 after Birges received the extortion payoff. They drove up to Lake Tahoe that night in the white 1975 Dodge van that Birges had borrowed from his older son, John Jr., with the bomb loaded in the back.
When John Birges, Bill Brown, and Terry Hall arrived in South Lake Tahoe in the early morning hours of Aug. 25, 1980, they stopped at the Lake Tahoe Airport off of U.S. Highway 50. Birges got out of the van with a briefcase and walked to a pay-phone, then returned a few minutes later. As they drove into the city, the sun was starting to rise and the van’s engine was running poorly, so Birges decided that it was too late that day to make the delivery to Harvey’s, and they drove back to the airport, where Birges got out again and returned to the van a few minutes later.
They then drove by Harvey’s Resort Hotel in Stateline, where Birges showed Brown and Hall the lobby entrance where they would be delivering the “machine.”
They drove back across the state line and had breakfast at a local diner in South Lake Tahoe. Around 11 a.m., they checked in to room 8 of the Balahoe Motel, at 1313 Emerald Bay Road, just a couple blocks north of the Lake Tahoe Airport. Birges gave money to Hall for the registration, and Hall signed in with the false name “Joey Evetto,” but the motel clerk wrote down the California license plate number of the van: 1A65819.
John Birges awoke around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 26, 1980, and instructed Bill Brown and Terry Hall to clean up the room, remove any fingerprints they may have left, then drive the van down to the Lake Tahoe Airport and pick him up.
Birges then walked down to the Lake Tahoe Airport with his briefcase. When the van never showed up, he walked back up the hill to the motel, where he found Brown and Hall trying to start the engine, but the battery had died. They had to call a tow truck to jump-start the van.
Once the van was started, they drove to Stateline and pulled into the parking lot behind Harrah’s, where they “borrowed” a license plate from another van and fastened it over their own using rubber bands.
They then drove back to the California side of the state line, across the street from Harvey’s Resort Hotel, where they unloaded the “machine” from the back of the van, using metal ramps and a rope-and-pulley system that Birges had constructed. They then tied the bomb, on a rolling cart, to the back bumper of the van, and towed it across the street to the parking lot behind Harvey’s.
Brown and Hall pushed the cart to the lobby entrance, where the height of the rolling cart matched the height of the curb, while Birges parked the van nearby. At the curb, Brown and Hall rolled the bomb, covered by a cloth with an “IBM” logo, off the cart and into the hotel lobby, where Hall pushed the bomb into the elevator and took it up to the second floor, while Brown went back and picked up the cart, loaded it into the van, and drove the van across the street to the Harrah’s parking lot.
Birges met Hall on the second floor, and helped him position the bomb in a corridor near the casino’s business offices. Birges then used toothpicks and glue to jam the locks on doors at either end of the corridor, to prevent someone from wandering by and accidentally triggering the bomb.
Birges left a three-page extortion note in an envelope next to the bomb, then he and Hall walked across Highway 50 and met Brown at the van behind Harrah’s. After discarding their borrowed license plate, they drove back into California and returned home to Fresno County. Birges slept most of the way as Brown drove, because he was going to be busy the following night.
Shortly before 6 a.m., Robert M. Vinson, the graveyard shift slot manager at Harvey’s, walked out of his office on the second floor of the casino and found that someone had closed the doors at either end of the hallway and filled the locks with glue. He also saw a large, metal device in the hallway with an envelope next to it.
Vinson contacted Richard Lawson and William A. Schonfeld at the security desk on the main floor of the casino. After going upstairs to examine the doors on the second floor and the metal device and envelope left in the hallway, Schonfeld had security officers secure the area and they called Simon “Pete” Caban, Jr., the security supervisor, and Bud Briggs, the casino shift manager.
Caban and security officer Wayne Watt, initially thinking the envelope on the floor might be a letter bomb, poked at the letter with broom handles while taking cover behind the large metal device in the hallway.
Once they determined it was just a letter, they opened the envelope and found the extortion note, stating that the metal machine was a bomb, and that it could not be disarmed or moved without setting it off. The letter demanded $3 million in cash, delivered by helicopter, in exchange for instructions to safely disarm and move the bomb. Bob Scrafford, chief of security, was notified, along with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District.
Security shift sergeant Richard Lawson, whose father was a longtime bomb disposal expert for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, implemented the emergency evacuation plan that his father had helped create for the casino, getting all guests and employees out of the hotel within 50 minutes.
Fire Chief Bruce D. Kanoff and the Tahoe-Douglas Bomb Squad worked to analyze the improvised explosive device, while Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies collected fingerprints and other forensic evidence from the device.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, South Lake Tahoe Police Department, Nevada Highway Patrol, California Highway Patrol, and El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office helped to set up a safe perimeter around the casino on both sides of the state line.
Special Agent William Jonkey, of the FBI’s Carson City resident agency, soon arrived to oversee the investigation of the extortion case. Since the extortion letter demanded a ransom drop via helicopter, the FBI contacted Special Agent Joe E. Cook, a U.S. Navy veteran who had flown nearly 1,000 hours in a helicopter in Vietnam.
Cook flew an FBI helicopter from Los Angeles up to South Lake Tahoe, where he was directed to go to the Lake Tahoe Airport and await contact from the extortionists, as detailed in the extortion letter.
After returning to his Fresno County home in the afternoon of Aug. 26, 1980, John Birges informed his girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, and his two sons, John and Jim Birges, that he had successfully delivered the bomb to Harvey’s, and he would need all of them to help him collect the ransom money to be delivered that night.
They drove in two cars up to El Dorado County. Birges directed Williams to drive her silver Toyota Celica to the Cameron Park Airport, west of Placerville, where she would wait for Birges to land in a helicopter and drive him back home.
Birges and his two sons drove his gold Volvo east on U.S. Highway 50 to the planned ransom drop site off of Ice House Road, north of Highway 50 between Placerville and Kyburz, where they planned to signal the helicopter to land using a strobe light, then hijack the helicopter at gunpoint, but they discovered that they had forgotten to bring an extra battery to power the light, so they drove up the highway to Kyburz, where they tried to steal a battery from an old Volkswagen parked outside a service station.
Hearing intruders outside his business late at night, the owner of the garage, Jesse James Martin, came out yelling and scared them off.
Birges and his sons drove back down Highway 50 to Placerville, where they purchased a new car battery at Colvin’s Shell Service Station.
They then drove back up to Ice House Road, and John Birges got out with his younger son, Jim, at a clearing in the mountains. They took with them the strobe light, battery, and three guns: a .303 British, a .22 caliber Remington, and a .357 Magnum.
After dropping off his father and younger brother on Ice House Road, John Birges Jr. drove a few miles west on Highway 50 to Pacific House, where, shortly after midnight the morning of Aug. 27, 1980, he used a pay-phone to call the Lake Tahoe Airport.
He informed the helicopter pilot that instructions for the ransom drop were in a letter taped under a table below the phone, which his father had hidden before delivering the bomb.
John Jr. then drove the Volvo south to a clearing near Ham’s Station, on Highway 88 between Kirkwood and Jackson, where he was to await the stolen helicopter that his father would be flying.
His father’s plan was to force the pilot out of the helicopter, then fly it himself down to Ham’s Station. He would drop off Jim with the ransom money, and the brothers would drive back to Fresno County in the Volvo, while their father would fly the helicopter alone to the Cameron Park Airport, where Ella Joan Williams was waiting to pick him up.
Once they all got back home, John Birges planned to fly to Europe and launder the $3 million in cash, and Harvey’s would receive the instructions on how to safely disarm and move the bomb out of the casino. Birges would be a wealthy man once again, and Harvey’s could get back to business as usual.
What could possibly go wrong?
– See the continuation of this story in Friday’s issue of the Tribune.
TO THE MANAGEMENT:
STERN WARNING TO THE MANAGEMENT AND BOMB SQUAD:
Do not move or tilt this bomb, because the mechanism controlling the detonators in it will set it off at a movement of less than .01 of the open end Richter scale. Don’t try to flood or gas the bomb. There is a float switch and an atmospheric pressure switch set at 26.00-33.00. Both are attached to detonators. Do not try to take it apart. The flathead screws are also attached to triggers and as much as 1/4 to 3/4 of a turn will cause an explosion. In other words this bomb is so sensitive that the slightest movement either inside or outside will cause it to explode.
This bomb can never be dismantled or disarmed without causing an explosion. Not even by the creator. Only by proper instruction can it be moved to a safe place where it can be deliberately exploded, or where the third automatic timer can be allowed to detonate it. There are three automatic timers each set for three different explosion times. Only if you comply with the instructions in this letter will you be given instructions on how to disconnect the first two automatic timers and how to move the bomb to a place where it can be exploded safely.
I repeat do not try to move, disarm, or enter this bomb. It will explode.
If exploded this bomb contains enough TNT to severely damage Harrah’s across the street. This should give you some idea of the amount of TNT contained within this box. It is full of TNT. It is our advice to cordon off a minimum of twelve hundred feet radius and remove all people from that area.
We demand three million dollars in used one hundred dollar bills. They must be unmarked, unbugged and chemically untreated. If we find anything wrong with the money we will stop all instructions for moving the bomb.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR DELIVERY:
The money is to be delivered by helicopter. The helicopter pilot is to park at 2300 hours as close as possible to the LTA building by the light at the Lake Tahoe Airport. It is to face the east. The pilot has to be alone, and unarmed. The pilot is to get out and stand by the chain link fence gate. He is to wait for further instructions which will be delivered by a taxi that will be hired. The driver will know nothing. They may also be delivered by a private individual or through the nearby public phone at exactly 0010 hours. At 0010 hours the pilot will receive instructions about where to do and what to do. Before the pilot enters the helicopter he has to take a strong flashlight and shine it around the inside of the helicopter so that it will light up the entire inside. We must be able to see it from a distance with binoculars. We want to be able to see everything that is inside the helicopter so that we can be sure there is no one hiding inside and that there is no contraband inside.
CONDITIONS OF THE BUSINESS TRANSACTION:
These conditions must be followed to the letter. Any deviation from these conditions will leave your casino in a shambles. Also remember that even a very small earthquake will detonate the bomb so do not try to delay the delivery of the money.
(1) All news media, local or nationwide will be kept ignorant of the transactions between us and the casino management until the bomb is removed from the building.
(2) The helicopter will be manned only by the pilot. He must be unarmed and unbugged. We do not want any misunderstanding which might cause us to have to take lives unnecessarily.
(3) Fill the helicopter up completely with gas.
(4) The helicopter pilot after he receives the first instructions cannot communicate with anyone except the necessary instructions given and taken by the tower. All channels from 11.30 to 17.00 will be monitored.
The designer of this bomb will not participate in the exchange so it will be completely useless to apprehend any person making the exchange because they will not know how it works. They perform their duty for reward. And again if you don’t want to be stuck with a thousand pounds of TNT do not allow any investigation by local agencies, FBI or any other investigative agency action before the bomb is removed. If the instructions are violated in any way by any authority the secret of the handling of the bomb will definitely not be revealed. If the money is received without any problems six sets of instructions regarding the removal of the bomb will be given to you at different times. The pilot will receive the first set of instructions. He can carry it back with him. If the money is sold to the buyer without complications you may receive the remaining five sets of instructions one by one via the Kingsbury Post Office by general delivery, or you may receive them all at once. The extent of your co-operation will make the difference. If you co-operate fully it will insure a very speedy exchange. We don’t want to burden your business opportunities or cause more loss of money than is necessary.
There will be no extension or renegotiation. Demands are firm regardless. The transaction has to take place within 24 hours. If you do not comply we will not contact you again and we will not answer any attempts to contact us. In the event of a double-cross there will be another time sometime in the future when another attempt will be made. We have the ways and means to get another bomb in.
TO THE PILOT:
The helicopter has to be filled up with gas. Do not come armed with any weapon. Do not bring a shot-gun rider. All radio channels will be monitored. You are to have no communication with anyone after you reach the airport. Do not try to be a hero, Arlington is full of them and they can’t even smell the flowers. Follow the orders strictly. You will make five stops, none of which will be at an airfield. You will have ample lighting for landing. All sites are fairly level. One has about two degrees pitch. There will be a clearance of more than two hundred feet radius. We don’t want any trouble but we won’t run away if you bring it.
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