It was the early hours of August 26, 1980 when John Birges, Bill Brown and Terry Hall wheeled a bomb resembling a piece of equipment into the Harvey’s Resort Hotel and Casino. The bomb was set, and glue and toothpicks were used to jam the corridor locks to prevent someone from accidentally detonating the device. It would be hours before a night manager would discover the bomb with the ransom note attached.
Initially believing that the letter was a bomb, casino security secured the scene and poked at the envelope containing Birges’ ransom note with broom handles while hiding behind the large metal device, before determining that it was, in fact, only a letter. Inside of the envelope a typed three-page letter read:
TO THE MANAGEMENT:
STERN WARNING TO THE MANAGEMENT AND BOMB SQUAD:
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. Don’t try to flood or gas the bomb. There is a float switch and an atmospheric pressure switch set at 26.00-33.00. Both are attached to detonators. Do not try to take it apart. The flathead screws are also attached to triggers and as much as 1/4 to 3/4 of a turn will cause an explosion. In other words 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. Only by proper instruction can it be moved to a safe place where it can be deliberately exploded, or where the third automatic timer can be allowed to detonate it. There are three automatic timers each set for three different explosion times. Only if you comply with the instructions in this letter will you be given instructions on how to disconnect the first two automatic timers and how to move the bomb to a place where it can be exploded safely.
I repeat do not try to move, disarm, or enter this bomb. It will explode.
If exploded this bomb contains enough TNT to severely damage Harrah’s across the street. This should give you some idea of the amount of TNT contained within this box. It is full of TNT. It is our advice to cordon off a minimum of twelve hundred feet radius and remove all people from that area.
We demand three million dollars in used one hundred dollar bills. They must be unmarked, unbugged and chemically untreated. If we find anything wrong with the money we will stop all instructions for moving the bomb.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR DELIVERY:
The money is to be delivered by helicopter. The helicopter pilot is to park at 2300 hours as close as possible to the LTA building by the light at the Lake Tahoe Airport. It is to face the east. The pilot has to be alone, and unarmed. The pilot is to get out and stand by the chain link fence gate. He is to wait for further instructions which will be delivered by a taxi that will be hired. The driver will know nothing. They may also be delivered by a private individual or through the nearby public phone at exactly 0010 hours. At 0010 hours the pilot will receive instructions about where to do and what to do. Before the pilot enters the helicopter he has to take a strong flashlight and shine it around the inside of the helicopter so that it will light up the entire inside. We must be able to see it from a distance with binoculars. We want to be able to see everything that is inside the helicopter so that we can be sure there is no one hiding inside and that there is no contraband inside.
CONDITIONS OF THE BUSINESS TRANSACTION:
These conditions must be followed to the letter. Any deviation from these conditions will leave your casino in a shambles. Also remember that even a very small earthquake will detonate the bomb so do not try to delay the delivery of the money.
(1) All news media, local or nationwide will be kept ignorant of the transactions between us and the casino management until the bomb is removed from the building.
(2) The helicopter will be manned only by the pilot. He must be unarmed and unbugged. We do not want any misunderstanding which might cause us to have to take lives unnecessarily.
(3) Fill the helicopter up completely with gas.
(4) The helicopter pilot after he receives the first instructions cannot communicate with anyone except the necessary instructions given and taken by the tower. All channels from 11.30 to 17.00 will be monitored.
The designer of this bomb will not participate in the exchange so it will be completely useless to apprehend any person making the exchange because they will not know how it works. They perform their duty for reward. And again if you don’t want to be stuck with a thousand pounds of TNT do not allow any investigation by local agencies, FBI or any other investigative agency action before the bomb is removed. If the instructions are violated in any way by any authority the secret of the handling of the bomb will definitely not be revealed. If the money is received without any problems six sets of instructions regarding the removal of the bomb will be given to you at different times. The pilot will receive the first set of instructions. He can carry it back with him. If the money is sold to the buyer without complications you may receive the remaining five sets of instructions one by one via the Kingsbury Post Office by general delivery, or you may receive them all at once. The extent of your co-operation will make the difference. If you co-operate fully it will insure a very speedy exchange. We don’t want to burden your business opportunities or cause more loss of money than is necessary.
There will be no extension or renegotiation. Demands are firm regardless. The transaction has to take place within 24 hours. If you do not comply we will not contact you again and we will not answer any attempts to contact us. In the event of a double-cross there will be another time sometime in the future when another attempt will be made. We have the ways and means to get another bomb in.
TO THE PILOT:
The helicopter has to be filled up with gas. Do not come armed with any weapon. Do not bring a shot-gun rider. All radio channels will be monitored. You are to have no communication with anyone after you reach the airport. Do not try to be a hero, Arlington is full of them and they can’t even smell the flowers. Follow the orders strictly. You will make five stops, none of which will be at an airfield. You will have ample lighting for landing. All sites are fairly level. One has about two degrees pitch. There will be a clearance of more than two hundred feet radius. We don’t want any trouble but we won’t run away if you bring it.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Department and the Fire Department were notified of the bomb and the casino’s guests and staff were completely evacuated from the scene in just under an hour. Fire and Douglas Tahoe County bomb squad officials analyzed the device, while other law enforcement deputies worked to collect fingerprints and other evidence the perpetrators may have left on the scene.
FBI officials were also contacted to oversee the investigation. Filling canvas bags from the casino with paper cut to resemble cash, Special Agent Joe Cook was tasked with piloting the helicopter and taking the fake money to the first location indicated on the ransom letter and waited to be contacted.
Just after midnight the following day, Special Agent Cook was contacted via payphone at the Lake Tahoe Airport. The caller informed him that further instructions were taped beneath the phone. The letter read:
TO THE PILOT:
I remind you again to strictly follow orders. After you read these instructions, open the helicopter door and shine a strong flashlight through the interior inch by inch. If the helicopter is a four-seater, fold the backs of the front seats down for clear visibility. After you have done this, you are ready for take-off. Make sure there is no one near the helicopter and that no one gets into the helicopter. We are watching you. If you don’t obey, don’t bother to take off.
From the time you receive the telephone call, you have three minutes to get airborne. Follow Highway Fifty to the west, on the right-hand side in a straight line. Don’t go over five hundred feet above the elevation of the terrain. Approximately fifteen miles west of the airport, start looking for a strobe light on your right.
A radar gun will be aimed at a forty-five-degree angle in your direction, and will turn on the strobe automatically when it catches you in its range. Again, no communication with anyone or by any means. You have four minutes to land after the strobe turns on. Because after four minutes, all lights will go off automatically.
Land facing south. Approximately two hundred feet south will be an envelope with further instructions nailed on a tree six feet off the ground.
Follow the new instructions as strictly as you did the first.
Special Agent Cook circled the location indicated in the letter for an hour, but failed to see the strobe signal from the extortioners. Instead he decided to return to the airport in case perpetrators called the pay phone again. No one ever called and Governor Robert F. List called a press conference in hopes the extortioners would reach out to authorities again.
At 6:43 AM Birges’ son, John Birges, Jr. was instructed to call the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department again from a gas station payphone. John, Jr. told the dispatcher that the bomb team needed to flip a switch on the side of the device in order to begin dismantling it. The switch actually did nothing and was only a diversion in order for the gang to come up with a new plan for the money drop.
The FBI decided not to flip the switch, as per the extortioners’ instructions. Instead the plan was to remove the top of the box from the lower portion of the bomb by detonating a case of C4 plastic explosives. Casino owner, Harvey Gross was informed that there was a good chance that the plan could easily backfire. He was reluctant but ultimately Gross allowed bomb experts to remotely detonate the C4 explosives. The plan did backfire and the bomb was detonated inside of the hotel and casino.
The blast left a five-story crater inside the hotel and shattered windows in the Harrah’s hotel and casino located across the street from Harvey’s. Birges heard the news report that the bomb had accidentally been detonated and began working on a plan for a second bomb and extortion attempt.
On August 30, Birges called his accomplices and discussed his plans for the second bomb. He also warned that if anyone dared to speak of their involvement in the casino bombing that he would see to it that they were executed.
FBI officials were able to secure a registration card for a hotel near the vicinity of Harvey’s Casino the night prior to the bombing. On the card was a vehicle listed as a white van, similar to that driven by the extortioners. The license plate number traced back to Birges’ son, John Birges, Jr. Special Agents paid a visit to John’s home sometime in the fall of 1980 in order to ask why his van was seen in the vicinity of Harvey’s Casino the night the bomb was placed in the hotel corridor.
John claimed that he was in the process of scouting an area he could plant marijuana when his van battery died. He says he left the van in the parking lot and hitchhiked a ride back to Fresno, CA. He then returned to the parking lot a short while later with his brother and was able to get the van jump-started. He also repeated this story under oath to a grand jury.
By August of 1981, the manhunt was officially still out for the Harvey’s casino bombers and a hefty reward of half a million dollars was offered for tips that could lead to the capture and conviction of the perpetrators. These tips would eventually lead FBI investigators back to the Birges family and John Birges was charged with suspected perjury for lying under oath. With John’s cooperation, prosecutors agreed to offer both he and his younger brother, Jim Birges, a plea deal if they agreed to divulge everything they knew about the casino bombing.
Days later the FBI had enough evidence to place Bill Birges and his girlfriend under arrest, along with his two accomplices – Terry Hall and Bill Brown. Finally investigators had their perpetrators and slowly began to piece together the story of why a retired landscape contractor and former restaurant owner would attempt to extort the casino using one of the most sophisticated bomb mechanisms of all time.
In his retirement Birges began renting an apartment roughly a mile away from Harvey’s Resort Hotel and Casino. Over several years Birges began spending more and more time at the casino, becoming known as a high roller. Between his addiction to gambling and his failing restaurant, Birges began racking up substantial debt, including $34,000 worth of back taxes.
Feeling the casino had slighting him out of thousands of dollars throughout the years, Birges began meticulously planning the bombing. He told family of his plans to plant the bomb and extort the hotel years prior, but they assumed he was joking.
In the summer 1980 Birges recruited his two sons to assist in driving him to various construction sites in order to secure the dynamite and other materials necessary to construct the bomb. Birges also contacted Hall and Brown, two of his former employees and offered to give them $2000 for assisting in the extortion plot after his sons refused to assist in delivering the finished bomb to the casino.
They agreed and the plan was set, but it did not go as smoothly as the group had planned. On August 26, Hall and Brown checked into a hotel near Harvey’s casino. The room was registered under a false name, but the license plate of the van Birges’ accomplices were driving was recorded on the registration card at the time of check-in. At 2:30AM Birges instructed Hall and Brown to clean the room of any prints and then meet him at the airport where he placed the letter to be later found by the pilot contracted to make the money drop. The pair never arrived at the airport. He walked to the hotel where he found Hall and Brown struggling to get the van started.
A tow truck was dispatched to get the van jump-started and the group was able to make it to their next destination. Parking at the Harrah’s parking lot across the street, a license plate was stolen from another vehicle and secured over the van’s real license plate. They pulled the van around to the California state line, directly across from the casino and wheeled the bomb on a cart into the hotel lobby and placed it into the corridor along with the ransom letter.
Birges returned home and informed both of his sons and his girlfriend that he had placed the bomb and needed their assistance for the money drop. They planned a meeting spot in the mountainous regions of El Dorado County where they would use a strobe light to indicate a landing place for the helicopter to make the money drop. Once the money was exchanged, Birges and his sons would hijack the helicopter and make their escape.
It was almost the perfect plan, except that they had forgotten to bring the battery to power the light. Birges and his sons attempted to steal a battery from a car parked outside of a service station, but were quickly scared off when the owner heard the commotion outside. They instead drove down the road to a gas station and purchased a battery for the light. Once the light was ready, Birges instructed John, Jr. to drive down the road to a payphone and give instructions to the helicopter pilot and to wait there for his father to fly in with the helicopter to drop the money and then fly to a second location where his girlfriend was waiting to pick up the men. The helicopter never arrived.
John, Jr. struck a deer on his way to the airport where Birges’ girlfriend had been waiting to pick him up. He was alright, but dented the car in the process. Birges’ girlfriend followed John, Jr. back to the area of the mountains to pick up Birges and Jim, where she lost control of her vehicle and crashed into the side of the mountain. John, Jr. picked her and his father up in his father’s Volvo and took Birges’ girlfriend to the hospital.
Before Birges had a chance to work out the plans for the second attempted money drop reports came in that the bomb was detonated. His plan had failed and it wasn’t long before the law caught up with him. Birges was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but died before finishing out his term. His sons received considerably lighter sentences for agreeing to work with investigators.
The FBI considers Birges’ bomb to be one of the most sophisticated improvised explosive devices they’ve ever encountered and continues to use similar design concepts in training exercises. Remarkably, no one was injured or perished in the explosion.