Saturday marked 42 years since a 1,000-pound bomb left at Harvey’s Hotel Casino by disgruntled gambler John Birges went off doing $15 million damage in one of the largest terrorist attacks on American soil until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Birges was a frequent guest at the hotel. He’d even dined at owner Harvey Gross’ ranch north of Genoa. But at his trial, prosecutors said Birges wanted to get even for being kicked out of the high roller’s suite.
The bomb Birges constructed was wheeled into Harvey’s executive offices on Aug. 26, 1980, disguised as an IBM computer, including a logo stitched onto a cover.
With the bomb, Birges left a note offering instructions on how to dismantle it in exchange for $3 million.
The payoff was supposed to be delivered by Gross’ personal helicopter that was actually piloted by an FBI agent. The suitcase carried aboard was mostly fake money. The agent flew the helicopter to a Lake Tahoe airport next to a telephone booth with instructions for the drop.
The plan was for the helicopter to fly toward Placerville and turn at a certain compass reading and then land next to a flashing red beacon in a meadow.
But when the pilot flew over the area, there was no beacon.
That’s because Birges and his son found that they’d left a 12-volt battery for the beacon in Fresno. They tried to buy a new one in Placerville, but got into an argument with a salesman, who was trying to sell them the correct battery for the Volvo they were driving.
By the time they got back to the meadow, the copter pilot had given up his search and headed back to Stateline with the ransom.
During a 2005 interview for the 25th anniversary of the bombing retired Douglas County Sheriff Jerry Maple told R-C Reporter Sheila Gardner that there were several thousand dollars in the case, but most of the ransom money was counterfeit.
After the drop failed, the sheriff's department, bomb squad and FBI agents made the decision to try to disarm the device.
About 10 minutes before detonating a shaped charge designed to disable the bomb on Aug. 27, 1980, 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," Maple said. "Well, I couldn't find any volunteers to flip switch No. 5."
Most of the casino core, crowded with Labor Day vacationers, was evacuated. All the Harveys guests were taken to Whittell High School.
No one was injured as a result of the blast, but hundreds of people who were unemployed waiting for Harveys to reopen.
Birges was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 1996 of liver cancer at the age of 74.
The bombing marked the inception of the Tahoe-Douglas Bomb Squad which responds to incidents four decades later.
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