Revisiting the Casino Bombing at Harvey’s: A Tale of ‘Bringing Down the House’

Posted on: August 23, 2023, 04:28h.

Last updated on: August 23, 2023, 04:28h.

On August 27, 1980, two men disguised as photocopier installers delivered a booby-trapped bomb to Harvey’s Resort Hotel in Stateline, Nev., on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Harvey's Casino bombing, Bringing Down the House, Stateline, Lake Tahoe
Blast from the past: The image above is taken by an FBI employee, just as the bomb, packed with 1,000 pounds of TNT, ripped through Harveys Casino Resort in August 1980. (Image: US Department of Justice)

The plotters told the FBI that the bomb could not be diffused, even by its maker. But the combination of switches required to release it, so it could be detonated remotely in a secure location, would be provided in return for a $3 million ransom. Ultimately, the extortion plot failed, but the bomb exploded, destroying most of the casino.

Bringing Down the House: The Bombing of Harvey’s Casino airs tonight on KCRA 3 Sacramento and is available to watch nationwide via the Go Local streaming platform.

The feature-length documentary, a collaboration between KCRA and Go Live, revisits the extraordinary events surrounding the plot and hears testimonies from those involved.

Sophisticated Bomb

The Harvey’s bomb was no ordinary bomb. Delivered to the executive offices on the casino’s second floor at around 5:30am, it was packed with 1,000 pounds of TNT.

It had three separate timers, each set for different explosion times. It was filled with circuitry and 28 switches, some of which would make the bomb go off, some of which were fakes. There was a toilet float inside, which meant attempting to flood it would cause the float to rise and detonate the bomb. An atmospheric pressure switch would set it off, too. Any attempt to tilt it or drill into it would also result in a devastating explosion.

The FBI has described it as possibly the most sophisticated improvised explosive device ever made anywhere in the world, and it is studied to this day in FBI training school.

The Mastermind

Curiously, though, the mastermind of the plot had little experience building bombs. John Birges Sr. was a Hungarian immigrant to Clovis, Calif. who had flown for the Luftwaffe during WW2. He was captured by the Russians and spent eight years in a Soviet gulag.

After his arrival in the US, he built a successful landscaping business and became wealthy. But he had a gambling problem. Birges claimed he lost $750,000 at Harvey’s – more than $2 million in today’s money – and he wanted revenge.

Plot Unravels, Bomb Goes Off

The FBI attempted to deliver the ransom, but later claimed they went to the wrong place because of vague directions. Birges was waiting for it at a different location.

Meanwhile, bomb technicians determined the best way of diffusing the device would be to separate the detonators from the dynamite using a shaped charge of C-4 explosive. But they did not realize dynamite had also been placed in the box containing the detonation circuit.

Birges’ claim in his ransom note that the bomb could not be disarmed proved to be accurate.

No one was killed or injured in the blast, and Harvey’s, now Harvey’s Lake Tahoe, a Caesars property, was rebuilt.

Birges was arrested in 1981 following a tipoff to the FBI from the ex-girlfriend of one his sons. The two sons testified against Birges at trial, admitting they were in on the plot, but argued they were bullied into it by their overbearing father. Neither served prison time.

Birges was sentenced to life and died in prison in 1996 at the age of 74.

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