Harvey’s Casino bombing became a training ground for the FBI

U.S. and World
An investigator examines the Harveys bomb, which contained nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite and a variety of triggering mechanisms. (Photo: FBI)

MYSTERY WIRE — It’s been 41 years since FBI agents accidentally detonated the largest and most diabolical bomb the bureau has ever encountered.

It began when four men wheeled the bomb into Harvey’s Casino at Lake Tahoe. The bomb that was planted inside Harvey’s Casino looked like a copy machine but was packed with nearly 1000 pounds of dynamite. It was so sophisticated that it was essentially tamper proof.

The mastermind behind the bomb later alleged it was an inside job.

When extortionists demanded $3 million from the casino the FBI tried to disarm the bomb. But it exploded, and leveled Harvey’s.

A year later, the FBI received a tip that led them to John Birges, a businessman who lost his fortune gambling at Harveys.

Birges previously survived a KGB Gulag, had an IQ of 191, and almost got away with the bombing.

Federal marshals lead John Birges Sr. into the U.S. District Court in Reno, Nevada on Aug. 28, 1981. (AP Photo/Doug Dill)

Years later, while Birges languished in a Nevada prison, he agreed to an interview with the KLAS TV I-Team.  Reporter George Knapp recalls that Birges seemed proud of the astonishingly advanced bomb he built from scratch. “They had four atomic bomb experts from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory,” Birges said during our1996 interview. “They had two electronic engineers from Learjet. They have the cream of United States and they made a statement only, only thing we can do, sit down and watch it.”

Birges later died in prison, but before his death, he made startling allegations to us, claiming that he had been in touch with Harvey’s executives prior to the extortion scheme. Birges said a few top level executives supported the bomb plot because they wanted the aging hotel to be destroyed, hoping they could collect the insurance payments and build a brand new property.

Harvey’s did, in fact, rebuild and funded its new hotel largely with money paid by insurers, but the allegations that executives conspired with Birges were never proven. The FBI always believed that Birges dreamed up the extortion plan because he was angry about losing most of his personal fortune on Harvey’s gaming tables. 

In an interview published by the FBI, retired Special Agent Chris Ronay said, “What we know about it afterwards is that it virtually was undefeatable. There were eight fusing systems, as it turned out. The timer simply was one of them. The anti-motion switch was another. The float mechanism was another. The device was enclosed in a metal box and the lid of the box was secured by some flat head screws around the perimeter of the lid. Those screws were attached to wires and contacts so that if they were removed that would detonate the device. There were layers of rubber and metal on the inside of the metal box so that of an entry was attempted–a drilling or some inspection entry was made–that that contact would function the bomb.”

After authorities evacuated Harvey’s Casino and the surrounding area, experts attempted to disarm the bomb, but their efforts were unsuccessful and the bomb exploded. (Photo: FBI)

In 2019, the FBI published another photograph related to the bombing. It was what is described as the “trial model” of the bomb.

The Harvey’s Casino “trial bomb” (Photo: FBI)

The FBI’s April 2019 Artifact of the Month is the trial model of Harvey’s Casino Bomb.
After 39 years, it remains one of the most unique improvised explosives devices (IEDs) the Bureau has ever come across.
The device contained nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite and eight triggering mechanisms, which made it virtually undefeatable.
In the early morning hours of August 26, 1980, men wearing white jumpsuits and pretending to deliver an IBM copy machine rolled a bomb into Harvey’s Resort Hotel and Casino in Stateline, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe.
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 Richter 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.”
The “creator,” the FBI 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.
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.
Tourists at neighboring casinos bet on when the bomb would go off, or if it would go off. After the bomb detonated, crowds cheered and reveled from a safe distance. Due to the planning of the FBI and our partners, there were no deaths or injuries.
“Today’s IEDs use more advanced electronics,” said retired Special Agent Thomas Mohnal, a former examiner in our Explosives Unit, based at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. “Our techniques and tools for dealing with these devices are also more advanced,” Mohnal added, “but you still probably couldn’t build a bomb much tougher to defeat than Harvey’s.”
Birges, Sr., said to be an inveterate gambler who had lost a substantial amount of money at Harvey’s, was caught (with the help of an alert clerk at a nearby hotel who had written down the license plate of the bomb delivery van) and convicted. His two sons, charged as accomplices, were given suspended sentences because they cooperated with authorities. Birges died in jail in 1996.
Today, the FBI Laboratory displays the trial model as a “notable IED” example in its explosives reference collection.
The FBI’s partners in the investigation included the Nevada Department of Public Safety, the California State Police, the U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal, and the Nuclear Emergency Support Team.

fbi.gov

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