One of many big mysteries in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre is how mysterious millionaire shooter Stephen Paddock secreted his guns and ammunition into the hotel unobserved.
However, Paddock accomplished his feat, it wasn’t the first time that something big and deadly had been smuggled into a Nevada casino by a millionaire.
On August 26–27, 1980, three men planted an elaborately booby-trapped bomb containing 1,000 pounds of dynamite at Harvey’s Resort Hotel (now Harveys Lake Tahoe) in Stateline, Nevada. The mastermind behind the bomb, former millionaire John Birges, was attempting to extort $3 million ($8.7 million today) from the casino, claiming he had lost $750,000 ($2.2 million today) gambling there.
Getting 1,000 pounds of explosive into the hotel unseen ranks as a first on the FBI’s Big Bomb List.
According to an excerpt from “A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, “It was about 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1980, when Bob Vinson, who supervised the graveyard shift at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino realized he was out of cigarettes. He was on his way down from his second-floor office to the gift shop to buy a pack when he noticed something odd. The accordion door leading through to the room that housed the casino’s telephone exchange was half open. The door was usually closed, and Vinson hadn’t seen anyone else around.
Curious about the open door, Vinson looked inside the room and saw a big gray metal object that he was sure hadn’t been there 20 minutes earlier. The device was on metal legs, which were balanced on pieces of plywood, and the whole thing was pressing deeply into the thick orange carpet. Clearly whatever it was, it was heavy, and Vinson was sure it didn’t belong there.
Security supervisor, Simon Caban, a big man who had been a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, was on duty. There was an envelope with three typed pages, unsealed, near the device. The Douglas County Sheriff and Fire departments were called.
Using broomstick handles, he and a sheriff’s deputy poked the envelope. Pages fell out and they started to read, both leaning on the thing. The deputy pointed up at the contraption and said, “That’s a bomb.” They moved slowly away.
John Birges, Sr., was a Hungarian immigrant from Clovis, California. He flew for the German Luftwaffe during World War II. He was shot down and sentenced to 25 years hard labor in a Russian gulag, but was paroled after eight years and returned to Hungary. From there he emigrated to the United States and built a successful landscaping business. He also became a compulsive gambler.
Birges’ bomb was elaborately designed and tamper-proof. The note said the bomb could not be disarmed even by the bomb builder, but if paid $3 million he would give instructions on which combination of switches would allow the bomb to be moved and remotely detonated.
The FBI, after careful examination determined it would take four men to move the device, and even then they weren’t sure if it could be disarmed.
The hotel was full to capacity with vacationers in town for Labor Day weekend. On the casino floor, security guards were emptying the cage of the $2-$3 million in cash held there while figuring out how to lock the doors to a building that had been open 24 hours a day for 17 years.
Meanwhile, all the guests and their belongings were being moved, the gas mains shut off, while government agents continued to x-ray and study the bomb. Even though there were warnings from the bomb maker that a shock would trigger it, they believed the best hope of disarming it was to separate the detonators from the explosive. Technicians thought this could be accomplished using a shaped charge of C-4.
It was a good idea, but, unknown to them, dynamite had also been placed in the top box containing the detonation circuit. The shaped charge detonated these top-box explosives, which caused the rest of the bomb to detonate.
Big, big boom.
Most of the casino was destroyed. Harrah’s, nearby, was also damaged with many of its windows shattered.
Birges was investigated as a possible suspect after his white van was identified as being in South Tahoe at the time of the bombing. He was sure none of his pals would squeal, and he thought he was home free. But alas for him, his big mistake involved one of his sons, who had told his girlfriend about the caper. After the happy couple broke up and she was on a date with her new beau, they heard about a reward being offered for information in the case. Loose lips sink ships, and the rest is history.
Birges was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. He died in prison, 16 years and a day after the bombing. He had built one of the largest bombs the FBI had ever seen, with dynamite stolen from construction sites in Fresno, Calif.
The Harvey’s bomb remains the most complex improvised explosive device the FBI has ever examined. and a replica of it was being used in FBI training as recently as 2009.
Two cases, one with a far sadder outcome. Nevada, the land of dreams and schemes, continues to astound.