In the early morning hours of August 26, 1980, a team of men wearing white jumpsuits rolled an IBM copy machine into Harvey’s Resort Hotel and Casino in Stateline, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe — only it wasn’t a copy machine:
So began one of the most unusual cases in [FBI] history.
A note left with the bomb—titled STERN WARNING TO THE MANAGEMENT AND BOMB SQUAD—began ominously: “Do not move or tilt this bomb, because the mechanism controlling the detonators in it will set it off at a movement of less than .01 of the open end Ricter scale.”
“Do not try to take it apart,” the note went on. “The flathead screws are also attached to triggers and as much as ¼ to ¾ of a turn will cause an explosion. …This bomb is so sensitive that the slightest movement either inside or outside will cause it to explode. This bomb can never be dismantled or disarmed without causing an explosion. Not even by the creator.”
An investigator examines the Harvey’s bomb, which contained nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite and a variety of triggering mechanisms that made it virtually undefeatable.
The “creator,” we later discovered, was 59-year-old John Birges, Sr.—who wanted $3 million in cash in return for supplying directions to disconnect two of the bomb’s three automatic timers so it could be moved to a remote area before exploding.
The device—two steel boxes stacked one atop the other—contained nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite. Inside the resort, Birges made sure the bomb was exactly level, then armed it using at least eight triggering mechanisms.
“We had never seen anything quite like it,” said retired Special Agent Chris Ronay, an explosives examiner who was called to the scene along with other experts.
After being discovered, the bomb was photographed, dusted for fingerprints, X-rayed, and studied. Finally, more than 30 hours later, a plan was agreed upon: if the two boxes could be severed using a shaped charge of C4 explosive, it might disconnect the detonator wiring from the dynamite.
Harvey’s and other nearby casinos in Lake Tahoe were evacuated, and on the afternoon of August 27, the shaped charge was remotely detonated.
The plan was the best one available at the time, but it didn’t work. The bomb exploded, creating a five-story crater in the hotel. “Looking up from ground level,” Ronay said, “you could see TV sets swinging on electric cords and toilets hanging on by pipes. Debris was everywhere.” Fortunately, because of the evacuation, no one was killed or injured.
John Birges, Sr. (1922–1996), was a Hungarian immigrant from Clovis, California. He flew for the German Luftwaffe during World War II. He was captured and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in a Russian gulag. Eight years into his sentence in the gulag, he escaped by blowing it up. He emigrated to the U.S. and built a successful landscaping business, but his addiction to gambling led to his losing a large amount of money and prompted the bomb plot. His gambling debt and experience with explosives were primary pieces of evidence linking him to the Lake Tahoe bombing.
Birges was eventually arrested based on a tip. One of his sons had revealed to his then-girlfriend that his father had placed a bomb in Harvey’s. After the two broke up, she was on a date with another man when they heard about a reward for information, and she informed her new boyfriend about Birges. This man then called the FBI.