TV beckons former sheriff for Harveys bombing segment
One day recently, former Douglas County Sheriff Jerry Maple answered the telephone at his Mountain Home, Ark., residence and a representative of the Arts and Entertainment television network was on the line.
Would Maple be willing to return to Nevada for a few days to be part of a “City Confidential” segment on the 25th anniversary of the August 1980 bombing at Harveys Lake Tahoe Casino & Resort?
“I don’t know how they found me,” Maple said in an interview Thursday at The Record-Courier newspaper in Gardnerville. “But the gal called me up on the phone and offered me an all-expenses paid trip back to Nevada. It seemed like a good opportunity.”
Maple spent part of this week at Harveys, reliving the incident that riveted Northern Nevada and California that pre-Labor Day weekend of 1980.
“The easiest part, the greatest part about it is that no one was injured,” he said of the explosion that caused $15 million damage to the hotel-casino.
Maple said A&E plans to interview about 30 people in connection with the program, including Sheriff Ron Pierini, who was the captain of the sheriff’s substation at Stateline. Many of the law enforcement personnel involved in the investigation are still employed by Douglas County.
Maple said A&E plans to broadcast the episode in about six months.
He kept a file of the bombing to remember what transpired in the 30 hours between the time the device was wheeled into Harveys and it exploded, blowing a 30- to 40-foot crater through the hotel.
“The more I talk about it, the more these memories come back,” he said. “I went up to Harveys at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 26 and I didn’t come home for seven days. I remember being awake for 36 straight hours.”
Maple was a 31-year-old sheriff when mastermind John Birges and his accomplices wheeled the 1,000-pound bomb into the executive offices of Harveys Hotel Casino.
The bomb was made up to look like a 1980 computer, down to the silk cover stitched with “IBM” and made by John Birges’ girlfriend.
Prosecutors said Birges wanted to get even for being bounced out of a high-roller’s suite at the hotel. He’d been a frequent guest at Harveys and had dined at casino owner Harvey Gross’ ranch north of Genoa.
Birges wanted $3 million, so he left a note offering to exchange instructions on how to dismantle the bomb in return for the money.
When the extortionist’s plans fell apart, the sheriff’s department, bomb squad and FBI agents made a decision to try to disarm the device. The bomb blew up in the process.
About 10 minutes before the detonation, sheriff’s dispatch took a call from someone purporting to be the bomber with instructions on how to delay the explosion so negotiations could continue.
“They told us to hit switch No. 5 and that would give us additional time,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t find any volunteers to flip switch No. 5.”
Maple said the extortionists’ plan was flawless up until it was time to deliver the $3 million ransom. Birges demanded that Gross send his personal helicopter to deliver the payoff. An FBI agent piloted the helicopter to an airport at Lake Tahoe next to a telephone booth where he received instructions to fly to Placerville.
“Up to this point, it had been a perfectly executed plan,” Maple said. “Then, a million-and-a-half things went wrong.”
Birges and his son discovered when they tried to set up the beacon that they had left a 12-volt battery back in Fresno. They hurried to a small automotive store in Placerville and said they needed a 12-volt battery for their Volvo. They got in an argument with the salesman who tried to sell them the correct size for the car.
By the time they got back to the meadow, the helicopter pilot had given up his search and headed back to Stateline with the ransom. Maple said there were several thousand dollars in the case, but most of the ransom money was counterfeit.
Officials hoped they would be able to disarm the 1,000-pound bomb without detonating the device. Most of the casino core, crowded with Labor Day vacationers, was evacuated. Harveys guests were taken to Whittell High School.
At first, Maple thought the detonation plan had worked. He was standing on the opposite side of the blast.
“All I heard was a kind of boom and a whoosh,” he said. “Then I stepped around the corner and it was like a whiteout. All I could see was pulverized concrete filling the air. A lump came up in my throat. There was no way it worked.”
Had the bomb exploded while the hotel was occupied, Maple doubts there would have been survivors.
“Whoever didn’t die in the explosion would have died in a towering inferno,” he said. “There would have been thousands to die from one man’s passion in trying to extort money.”
Even 25 years after the event, Maple still refers to the late casino owner as “Mr. Gross.”
“I can still see Mr. Gross sitting in front of me. I still remember exactly what he said. He sat there and he was a real broken man. And he said to me, ‘Sheriff, do whatever you have to do. But promise me one thing. Make sure that no one gets hurt.’
Besides the damage to the hotel and the hundreds of people who were unemployed waiting for Harveys to reopen, Maple said he believes the bombing took its toll on Gross who died in November 1983. He didn’t live to see the extortionists convicted.
“He was a great man and a great person in this community. I think this contributed to the early retirement on his life,” Maple said.
At age 74, Birges died of liver cancer in prison in 1996 almost 16 years to the day of the bombing.