Harveys bombing memorable 28 years later
Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini never will forget where he was 28 years ago this week.
Not only because he witnessed what was at the time – and for a decade to come – the largest domestic bombing in American history, but also because the media continually have reminded him of it with interviews and re-enactments over the years.
“It refreshes my memory constantly, because the History Channel just got done with one with me in it,” he said. Pierini was featured on the cable network’s series “Shockwave” in May, discussing the events that began early in the morning of Aug. 26, 1980. That was when the extortion plot masterminded by John Birges Sr. against Harveys Resort Casino was set into motion.
Two men delivered a large device disguised as computer equipment to the Harveys offices on the second floor of the casino.
“I got a call at home that said they found a device at Harveys,” said Pierini, who then was a captain at the Lake Tahoe substation of the sheriff’s office. “They were evacuating Harveys casino. There were about 600 employees and patrons in that casino at that time.”
The device had about 17 different toggle switches on it, “and some of them were up, some of them were down,” Pierini said.
“There was a ransom note in there, saying that they wanted money; in return, they would then tell us how to disarm the bomb.
“Our job at that time was primarily security and welfare of the people. We wanted to make sure that we could secure the entire building, secure the outside so people wouldn’t be going in the casino.”
“Because it was an extortion ransom note, we called the FBI,” Pierini said. As many as 50 federal agents would converge on the South Shore from throughout the country during the next several days.
“We also had bomb technicians that came from ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), the FBI, other federal agencies, including out of the military, to come examine the device. And it was determined that it was a true device, no doubt, through the X-rays and what it was made out of.”
The ransom note said to drop off money near the airport. “They put so much time into making the bomb itself – a device that was very well put together, unfortunately – but their instructions were to drop the money off and to make contact with the suspects. They didn’t even have the diagram correct,” Pierini said. “In fact, they were supposed to get a beacon of some type to put on a car that would be an indication of where to make the dropoff, and they couldn’t find a battery for the beacon, and it slowed the whole process down enough where the helicopters came to drop the money off, couldn’t find where to drop it off, and that ended that.”
The bomb had a number of triggers that could set it off if anyone attempted to move or tamper with it.
“After about a day and a half, it was decided that there was nothing else that we could do but to do what they call a ‘quick charge’ on it, and it was decided that if we could disarm the bomb before the pulse actually hit the explosive device inside the bomb itself, it may help stop it from going off,” Pierini said.
The bomb technicians attempted to explode a shaped charge to destroy the bomb’s detonator before it could set off the dynamite inside.
“It didn’t work,” Pierini said. “And to this day, the best of my knowledge is they absolutely couldn’t figure out how they could ever disarm it correctly. It was a very high-tech device, even for 1980.”
“They put some sandbags around the bomb itself, around the outside of it, before the explosion went off, and that really did help not lose the entire building,” Pierini said. “After the explosion … the only thing that was left out of the casino was on the very south end of the gaming area, but as far as the actual hotel, all the windows were broken out of it, and many of the walls were gone.”
Before the explosion, Pierini and other authorities personally had examined the bomb and collected forensic evidence. “We did do the fingerprinting of the device,” he said. “We did that sort of thing. At that time, we pretty much just left it be.”
After the explosion, authorities had many leads to follow.
“They had a lot of tips. They had a ton of people that were calling in,” Pierini said. “There was a van that actually dropped the device off, parked in the valet parking area. They brought it up to the second floor. People who were driving the van were staying in a motel over on the California side.”
On Aug. 30, 1980, a South Lake Tahoe motel manager told the FBI that two suspicious men had left the motel in a cargo van early in the morning of Aug. 26.
Accomplices Terry Lee Hall and Willis Brown, who were hired to deliver the bomb, had to call a tow truck to jump-start the van before they could drive the bomb to Harveys that morning.
Authorities traced the license plate of the van to John Birges Sr. and his sons in the Fresno County city of Clovis, but Birges’ son John Jr. said he had abandoned the van in South Lake Tahoe after its battery had died, and authorities had no evidence to prove he was lying.
“In November, December of 1980, we had done everything we possibly could in regards to investigating that family,” FBI investigator William Jonkey told the Tribune in 1995. “We couldn’t prove they did it, we couldn’t prove they didn’t do it.”
In 1981, as reward money for information on the Harveys bombing grew, more witnesses came forward. A man dating the ex-girlfriend of James Birges, Birges Sr.’s other son, told authorities that he had heard that Birges Sr. and his sons had stolen dynamite for the bomb from a dam construction project in nearby Wishon, Calif. When authorities matched the stolen explosives with those used in the bomb, they had solid evidence against Birges.
John Birges Sr. and his accomplices were arrested on Aug. 15, 1981, nearly a year after the bombing.
Birges Sr.’s girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, had helped sew a cloth cover to disguise the bomb as computer equipment. She and the other two accomplices testified against Birges Sr. in exchange for reduced sentences. Birges’ sons also testified against their father, providing details about the bomb’s construction, which their father had discussed with them often.
John Birges Sr. was born in Hungary in 1922. After immigrating to America in 1957, he founded a Fresno-based landscaping company that built golf courses, and he became a millionaire by 1971. A frequent visitor to Tahoe, Birges had lost more than $800,000 at Harveys by 1980.
Birges completed his federal sentence for extortion and bombing charges in 1993, but remained in state prison on Nevada charges filed by Douglas County prosecutors. He would have been eligible for parole in 2011, but he died of liver cancer on Aug. 27, 1996, in the Southern Nevada Correctional Center in Jean, Nev.
“Actually, the Harveys bomb was the largest domestic bomb ever to go off in the United States,” Pierini said. The Stateline explosion would continue to hold that distinction until the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, followed by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
If the Harveys bomb hadn’t included an extortion note, allowing the building to be safely evacuated, the outcome could have been a lot worse.
“We probably would have lost all 600 people if that thing would have gone off,” Pierini said. In comparison, that would have eclipsed the 168 people later killed in the Murrah Federal Building bombing.
“We sent our bomb squad to that and I went with them,” Pierini said of the Oklahoma City bombing. “They brought in all kinds of different bomb squads from around the country to help out. And our bomb squad along with the Tahoe Douglas fire department is a joint effort between the both of us. I think they do an excellent job. They’re really good at it.
“We’ve come a long way, in comparison to what it used to be, with emergency management,” Pierini added. “We have procedures now in dealing with anything from earthquakes to fires to floods to manmade devices, so we’ve got the procedures down, I think, really well. All of us have been trained in the Instant Command System. We have a better partnership, I think, with fire departments, and I think that we’re very much prepared to handle most any kind of situation that could occur; obviously, it depends on the magnitude and what resources we have.”
Harveys, which is now owned by Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, has gone through many incarnations since the bombing. As part of her Loyola Marymount University senior thesis, Brandi Ledbetter turned to her immediate family for a documentary she made about what happened. Ledbetter is now production manager of RSN in South Lake Tahoe.
Her father, Kirk Ledbetter, worked as a valet at the time, as did her aunt, Jessica Ledbetter. Her grandfather Bill Ledbetter, who died last year and was a general manager at Harveys, was also featured in the documentary.
“The thing to remember is back then it was a tight-knit family operation. There were hundreds of employees who lost their jobs because of the bombing, including my father and my aunt,” Brandi Ledbetter said. “It was an awful thing for my family and the employees to endure.”
Ledbetter’s grandfather gave her another perspective for the documentary.
“He said that after it had happened, and all the smoke had cleared, we all had to move on and put it behind us,” she said.
– Jeff Munson