Thursday marked 35 years since Harvey’s blast | RecordCourier.com

Thursday marked 35 years since Harvey’s blast

by William Ferchland
Tahoe Daily Tribune

The Harvey's blast on Aug. 26, 1980.

Editor's Note: The Tahoe Daily Tribune's William Ferchland wrote this story in 2005 to mark 25 years since the Harvey's bombing. It has been updated.

Thursday marked 35 years since the largest bomb attack on a U.S. building until terrorists tried to take out the World Trade Center in 1993. Disguised as a large copy machine, the bomb that exploded Aug. 27, 1980, inside Harvey's Resort Hotel contained 850 pounds of explosives and was strong enough to seriously damage the Stateline hotel.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 26, 1980, the bomb with at least eight trigger mechanisms was rolled into the lobby of what was then called Harvey's Resort Hotel by John Birges Sr., a disgruntled Hungarian gambler. An extortion note demanding $3 million was left behind.

The successful evacuation, the time authorities had to examine the device, the motive of the bomb builder and other bizarre details separated the Harvey's bombing from similar events.

"Our goal was not to get anybody hurt and there was not a Band-Aid or a lawsuit (stemming from the blast), so we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish," said Bruce Kanoff, chief of Tahoe-Douglas Fire District in 1980. "Buildings can be rebuilt."

Assigned to the Carson City office, retired FBI Special Agent Bill Jonkey, a bomb specialist, was the agent in charge of the criminal portion of the case.

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The bomb consisted of two steel boxes, one stacked on top of the other.

The bottom box contained the bulk of the explosives.

The smaller box on top held eight switches, or triggers, to set off the device, Jonkey said.

It weighed a roughly 1,200 pounds, including the dynamite which weighed 850 pounds. The steel consisted of about 400 pounds, 125 of which was recovered after the explosion and used as evidence.

A few years after the bombing, in Tahoe Township Justice Court, Judge Steve McMorris presided over a preliminary hearing when he heard a remark by Birges Sr.

A bomb expert with the FBI testified about the different ignition possibilities, including a toilet float used to trigger the bomb if it was dunked in water, McMorris said.

"The bomb technician testified the ways to trigger the bomb and we took a recess and before I left the bench I heard Birges tell the bomb expert something to the effect, 'You don't know what you're talking about. There's a lot more ways the bomb could have been triggered,'" McMorris said.

"It was not a denial, I'll tell you that," the judge added. "It's one of those cases that won't be forgotten for a long time."

The bomb was wheeled in disguised as a large copy machine. Birges' girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, stitched an IBM insignia on the silk cover. Glue and toothpicks jammed the door leading into the lobby area where the bomb sat, Jonkey said.

A three-page, single-spaced extortion letter in a business-sized envelope with the words "To the management" in capital letters sat on the floor next to the cloaked bomb.

Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini was a captain at the Lake Tahoe substation who helped direct the evacuation and traffic rerouting during those days in late August 1980.

Before the evacuation order, gamblers stayed at gaming tables and slots the night before.

Thousands of people were moved out of Stateline with many diverted to Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove.

To witnesses, the sound ranged from a sonic boom to a muffled pop. Dust and plaster and smoke bounced down then up. A scientist later testified the bomb went off as intended.

The blast shattered windows. Plywood pelted surrounded buildings. Debris flew over the what is now the Horizon.

"That's how powerful that bomb was," Pierini said.

"Then Harvey Gross came out, saw it and he was just devastated," Pierini said. "It was really ugly. It was a sad day."

Pierini estimated 600 people would have been killed or injured if the bomb exploded when it was delivered.

Thousands of dollars in chips and money was scattered among the destruction. Every penny was accounted for, Pierini said.

Forty FBI agents from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Las Vegas helped sifted through the crime scene for a month afterward, Jonkey said. Bit by bit, authorities were piecing together evidence that pointed to a landscaper in Clovis, Calif.

A list of potential suspects had 502 names of people living across the county. A reward of $500,000 was issued for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the criminals.

Several pieces of information led authorities to the Birges clan, Jonkey said. Besides John Birges Sr., there was his two sons, John Jr. and Jimmy.

A day after the bombing, John Jr. was giving a traffic citation for speeding. His father sat in the passenger seat. The California Highway Patrol officer remembered the pair and the heavy accent of the elder Birges. It put the two in a location near Tahoe.

Ella Joan Williams, girlfriend of the elder Birges, was in a minor vehicle accident in Tahoe at the time of the bombing and was hospitalized for a short period.

Williams was accused of writing the $3 million ransom note. A helicopter delivering the money couldn't find the extortionists, which Kanoff attributed to a location error in the ransom note but others attributed to a battery malfunction in a strobe light used to signal the helicopter.

Birges Sr., 59 years old when arrested, was, by descriptions, an avid gambler who lost $1 million to the Stateline casinos. Wanting revenge and his money back and then some, he stole 850-1,000 pounds of dynamite at a hydroelectric construction project near Fresno in June 1980.

Gross died in 1983. Birges Sr. died from liver cancer in 1996 while incarcerated.

TIMELINE

Aug. 26, 1980

■ 5:30 a.m. — Bomb wheeled into Harvey’s Resort Hotel by two men posing as technicians.

■ 5:40 a.m. — Phone call report by suspects of bomb wrapped in blankets sitting on wheels at Harvey’s Resort Hotel.

■ 6 a.m. — Evacuation of casino began. Authorities find typed three-page extortion letter attached to bomb demanding $3 million and a helicopter. Letter suggests detonation at 11 a.m. or midnight.

■ Midmorning— Bomb experts arrive with X-ray devices to survey the 1,200- pound bomb.

■ Afternoon and evening — FBI agents arrive. Douglas County Sheriff Jerry Maple asks law enforcement and firefighting personnel for assistance.

Aug. 27, 1980

■ 12:10 a.m. — $3 million ransom in $100 bills signed off by casino owner Harvey Gross. Helicopter pilot reported to drop off ransom within a 15- mile radius of the club. The extortionists never showed.

■ 2:30 a.m. — Nevada Gov. Robert List issue a plea to the extortionist to contact authorities for detailed instructions on extortion money drop-off.

■ 7:30 a.m. — Evacuation begins for entire casino corridor: Including Harrah’s, Caesars and Sahara (Horizon Casino Resort).

■ 3:48 p.m. — Bomb explodes. There were no injuries in the explosion that made rubble of the casino’s bottom floor and blew out most of the windows in the 12-story, 250-room resort.

Aug. 28, 1980

■ Authorities declare nationwide manhunt for extortionists, said to be two men and one woman in their 30s. Harvey’s officials vow to reopen. Damage estimates “in the millions,” officials say.

Aug. 29, 1980

■ 6 p.m. — Harvey’s reopens portion of hotel and casino. Harvey’s offers “sizeable” award for arrest and conviction of bombers.

Aug. 14, 1981

■ Acting on tips, FBI agents in Clovis, a suburb of Fresno, Calif., arrest five suspects in the bombing, including John W. Birges Sr., later unidentified as the mastermind, his son John W. Birges Jr. and three others.

August 1996

■ After his conviction in the bombing in the early 1980s, John W. Birges Sr. dies in prison.

Sources: Tahoe Daily Tribune archives, FBI