30 years later | Trail of clues led authorities to Harvey’s casino bombers
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The assembled bomb experts were running out of options more than 24 hours after the improvised explosive device had been found on the second floor of Harvey’s Resort Hotel in Stateline.
The extortion letter that accompanied the 1,000-pound bomb warned that moving or tilting the device would set it off. A toilet float switch inside would detonate it if they tried to flood it. Wires attached to the screws would detonate it if they tried to dismantle it. The top box of the bomb had 28 toggle switches on one side, but only the creator of the bomb knew what they were for.
Tahoe Douglas Bomb Squad captains Frank C. “Danny” Danihel, Carl Paulson and Larry Chapman had been on the scene since the morning of Aug. 26, 1980, when the device was first found. Through the day, they had been joined by bomb experts from around the nation, including U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal personnel Lt. Fulman and Sgt. McNeal, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, and Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom J. Huddleston. The experts examined X-rays taken by the bomb squad and discussed a number of possible “render-safe” procedures.
After a failed ransom delivery attempt by the FBI in the early morning hours of Aug. 27, 1980, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office received a phone call at 6:43 a.m. The caller told them to flip switch No. 5 and await further instructions. After the call, the bomb squad rigged a lanyard with a series of pulleys, and was prepared to remotely flick switch No. 5, but they decided against that plan, since they did not know what flipping the switch would do.
Leonard Wolfson, from the Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland, had proposed using a Monroe-effect shaped charge, an explosive device that would focus a flat jet of energy and cut through the bomb like a knife in less than a millisecond. This might sever all wires leading from the triggering mechanisms in the top box to the explosives in the bottom box.
Having exhausted all other ideas, the bomb experts decided to go with this plan, since, after 30 hours, leaving the bomb alone was becoming increasingly dangerous – they had no idea when it would go off on its own.
Dimensions were calculated for the linear shaped charge, and the metal case for it was manufactured by defense contractor EG&G in Las Vegas and flown up to Lake Tahoe. The case was filled with C4 plastic explosive and it was primed with a No. 8 military electric blasting cap in each end.
Next door, in a suite at the Sahara-Tahoe Casino overlooking his own evacuated hotel, Harvey A. Gross met with FBI Special Agent William Jonkey, Special Agent in Charge Joseph Yablonsky, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Herbert Hawkins, Tahoe-Douglas Fire Chief Bruce D. Kanoff, and Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston. They informed Gross of the bomb squad’s render-safe plan with the shaped charge, and that it had a high possibility of failure.
Gross walked to the window and looked across the parking lot at his hotel. He told Special Agent Jonkey he didn’t mind what happened to the building, but he would be very distressed that an explosion would put hundreds of his employees out of work.
By 3:43 p.m., the surrounding area had been evacuated, and the bomb experts remotely detonated the shaped charge. A fraction of a second later, the entire bomb was triggered, blasting a five-story hole through the hotel and scattering dust, glass and debris across both sides of the state line.
The FBI immediately started collecting debris and possible evidence around the casino, spending weeks sifting through the rubble and looking for any bomb components or clues to its origin.
Special Agent Bill Jonkey and others followed up on numerous clues and leads, responding to hundreds of phone calls from possible witnesses.
One call was from Gerald De Minico, who owned the Balahoe Motel on Emerald Bay Road in South Lake Tahoe. He and his wife remembered a couple of men with a white van staying at the motel the night before the bomb was delivered, and they rang his intercom asking for jumper cables around 4 a.m. the morning the bomb was placed in Harvey’s. His wife had written down the van’s license plate number.
The FBI traced the van to a 20-year-old John Waldo Birges in Fresno County, Calif., who did not have a good explanation for why his van was seen in the Tahoe area the morning the bomb was delivered. Birges made up a story that he was scouting the area for a place to plant marijuana, and his van’s battery had died, so he had left it there and hitchhiked back to Fresno.
Within a few months, the FBI agents had set up an office in Fresno and made it their full-time job to observe and investigate Birges and his family. A federal grand jury was convened in Reno, and Birges was called to testify about his van and about his knowledge of the bombing. After he repeated his marijuana story under oath, the FBI arrested Birges on Aug. 15, 1981, nearly a year after the bombing.
The FBI agents knew that the 20-year-old was not the mastermind who built the bomb, so they threatened to send him to federal prison on perjury charges unless he would testify against his father, John Birges Sr., and the others involved in the plot. Birges confessed and gave them all the details, and agents brought in his younger brother, Jim Birges, and made him the same offer: testify against his father and the other suspects, in exchange for leniency from the U.S. Attorney.
Their father and his girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, were arrested that day, and Willis Brown and Terry Lee Hall, who had helped deliver the bomb to Harvey’s, were arrested the next day.
Jim Birges also led the FBI to a dry creek bed where he had helped his father bury a second batch of stolen explosives, to be used in another extortion attempt.
John Birges Sr. and Terry Lee Hall were tried together at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas the following year, in October of 1982, and were convicted on several counts related to the bombing and extortion.
Willis Brown pleaded guilty for a reduced sentence, and Ella Joan Williams was convicted on three federal extortion and conspiracy charges in 1983. The Birges sons were sentenced to probation and received no time in federal prison.
In 1985, the suspects faced state charges in Douglas County, Nev., and all but John Birges Sr. eventually reached plea bargains. Birges was convicted on numerous counts by a Douglas County jury and sentenced to at least 20 years in state prison, once he completed his federal prison sentence.
Birges would have been eligible for parole in 2011, but he died of liver cancer in the Southern Nevada Correctional Center infirmary on August 27, 1996, exactly 16 years after the bombing.
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A $20,000 fine and permanent ban could eventually await those operating vacation home rentals in Douglas County without a permit.