Harvey’s bombing changed casinos forever

William Ferchland
Tahoe Daily Tribune file / People assess the damage after the bomb was detonated in 1980.

When he was arrested in 1981 after his attempt to extort $3 million with a homemade bomb planted at Harvey’s Hotel Resort, John Birges Sr. was in the midst of constructing a new bomb targeted for Harvey’s or a San Francisco bank.

Birges Sr., a landscaper in debt, was apparently hellbent on recapturing at least $1 million lost to gambling and likely viewed the botched extortion attempt of casino owner Harvey Gross as fixable.

Had his original bomb planted in Harvey’s Resort Hotel on Aug. 26, 1980, killed hundreds in the Stateline corridor, the name John Birges Sr. would be uttered in the same breath as domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, executed in 2001 for placing a explosive-packed rented Ryder truck next to the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995, killing 168 people.

Instead, the name John Birges Sr. takes a back seat, but in August 1980, his actions brought international exposure to Lake Tahoe. The bombing was the first of four Nevada disasters credited with tightened casino security.

Dwayne Kling, a retired Lake Tahoe and Reno casino executive, said Gross installed $385,000 worth of security equipment when Harvey’s was rebuilt after the attempt to defuse the 1,200-pound bomb failed and technicians ended up detonating the device. It shattered top-story windows and blew a three-story crater in the eastern portion of the casino, which was being prepped for a remodel.

The security equipment included cameras, recorders and monitors.

Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini, a captain at the Lake Tahoe substation in 1980, said “casinos got extremely tight” with security personnel at entrances and exits. Casino security “became more proactive” in reporting unknown objects, he added.

Days after Birges Sr. and his two cronies, Willis Brown and Terry Hall, wheeled the bomb into Harvey’s second story executive offices, other casinos at Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area received bomb threats from copycats.

“There were calls after the bomb went off,” Jerry Maple, sheriff of Douglas County in 1980, said in a Sept. 3, 1980 story in the Tahoe Daily Tribune. “Some callers said, ‘See what happened? The next one will be bigger.’ Others asked if it (was) too late to negotiate and some didn’t know the bomb had gone off.”

Kling, who worked at Silver Spur in Reno at the time, said the casino received a bomb threat by an anonymous person who said an explosive was in the hotel lobby. But the casino didn’t have a hotel. Thus no hotel lobby.

The Harvey’s bombing was the first of four tragic events in a six-month span in Nevada’s three main gaming cities, said Guy Rocha, Nevada’s state archivist.

On Nov. 21, 1980, a fire erupted at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. In one of the most devastating hotel fires in U.S. history, more than 80 people died and approximately 700 were injured when an electrical malfunction sparked flames in the deli.

Six days later, on Thanksgiving Day, Priscilla Ford aimed her vehicle at pedestrians along Virginia Street in Reno, running over as many people as she could. Six people died and 23 were injured. Ford died earlier this year from possible complications with emphysema while on death row.

Lastly, a February 1981 fire at the Las Vegas Hilton killed about eight people but injured scores more in what was the then the country’s largest casino. The fire erupted while the casino was being retrofitted for modern safety equipment.

“In its own time frame it was a bad event but minor compared to the other three because of the loss of life,” Rocha said.

“It was a series of tremendous devastating events in Stateline, Las Vegas, Reno, back to Las Vegas,” Rocha continued. “They were the principal gambling destinations at the time. The state was reeling. Clearly the state was reeling.”

In addition to its place in Nevada’s history, the Harvey’s bombing brought more international attention to Lake Tahoe. Along with the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley and the 1963 kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. at Harrah’s, the Harvey’s bombing is firmly entrenched in people’s historical understanding of Tahoe. The most recent high-profile event that put Tahoe in the spotlight was the 1998 skiing death of Congressman and singer Sonny Bono at Heavenly Mountain Resort.

“When do places really capture people’s attention?” Rocha said. “And I’m saying that’s the period (Lake Tahoe) captured people’s attention.”

Birges died from liver cancer at the Southern Nevada Correctional Center in 1996. The Las Vegas Sun ran a three-paragraph notice on Birges’ death.

“I would say he’s now receded into obscurity,” Rocha said. “The event still has a dynamic, but I don’t think that many people remember (Birges).”

FBI agents, bomb squad technicians and others who worked on the case saw their experience in the bombing in demand. Bill Jonkey, an FBI special agent who worked the criminal investigation, toured the country, giving lectures on the bomb. He even assisted investigators at the Oklahoma City bombing site.

“We developed technology in the course of that crime scene investigation that was ultimately used in Oklahoma City,” Jonkey said.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Department bomb technicians who tried to defuse Birges’ bomb also participated in bomb investigations and lectures. Investigators had a unique opportunity to examine the bomb in the 33 hours or so between the time it was found Aug. 26 and detonated Aug. 27.

Although technology has improved to neutralizing explosives, Jonkey said if the same bomb with at least eight trigger systems was slipped into Harvey’s today bomb experts would still scratch their heads.

“None of these improvements would not have definitely rendered that bomb safe,” Jonkey said.

Yet up-to-date security enhancements would block the bomb from being slipped into the casino in early hours, authorities said.

“I don’t know if they ever would get it inside if it happened today,” Pierini said. “I don’t even think they could get it in and I think that chances of apprehending the suspects are greater now.”

Extortion attempts, a sign of the times a few decades ago, have since dwindled. Some attribute the more lucrative drug trade and other crimes. One law enforcement figure pointed out that in extortion cases someone has to always pick up the money.

Also more casinos are corporate owned. Part of the allure to extort Gross, authorities said, was he would be the sole decision-maker regarding his property and not a board of directors.

“Crime at Tahoe was a lot different then than it is today,” Pierini said. “It’s changed a lot. It truly has.”

Still, as fears of terrorism persist and desperate debtors will always hatch illogical plans to recapture money, the Harvey’s bombing underscores the fact that anything can happen anywhere.

“I don’t think people realize that message: You can live in a relative safe environment and safe community you can just never know (what) will happen,” Pierini said.

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