There are no plaques outside Harveys Lake Tahoe Resort & Casino to commemorate the shocking event that occurred there 35 years ago today. Harveys spokesman John Packer said Aug. 27, 1980, is a day people on the south shore of Lake Tahoe would prefer to forget.
Packer, however, does remember. He processed photos for the FBI across the street in a lab that day. The first five people interviewed in front of the casino Thursday had no idea that a quarter century ago a bomb containing 600 pounds of dynamite blew a crater 50 feet by 30 feet through five floors of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel and damaged every window in the 250-room hotel-casino.
“There would have been at least 1,000 people killed if we had not evacuated everyone and turned off and drained the six-inch gas line that fed the casino,” former Douglas County Sheriff Jerry Maple said. “It would have been a towering inferno.”
Retired FBI agent William Jonkey, who headed the investigation, has a two-word explanation why many people don’t remember the Harvey’s bombing: “Nobody died.” In fact, nobody was injured in what Jonkey describes as the biggest homemade bomb explosion on American soil up to the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Harvey’s was owned by Harvey Gross, a South Lake Tahoe meat market owner who opened a one-room club at the California-Nevada border in 1944 that became the hotel-casino. “Harvey was an excellent man,” Maple said. “He helped every organization in Douglas County. His health failed after the bomb exploded. He died a couple of years later.”
Howard Herz, a Douglas Country resident who operated a gaming token museum at Harvey’s, said the bombing devastated Gross. “It was kind of like, ‘Why us?’ ” Herz said. “Harvey knew all his employees by their first names. They depended on him for their jobs. He helped every charity. You don’t go through a bombing like that and not be affected.”
Maple’s deputies evacuated every guest at the hotel within a couple hours after the bomb was discovered in the executive offices shortly after 5 a.m. on Aug. 26. Deputies packed up the clothing, jewelry and toothbrushes of every guest and hauled their luggage to an evacuation center at Whittel High School. Even the token collection was carted up and taken to a safe place. Maple still takes pride in the fact that no guest filed a claim that they lost something.
A year after the blast, the FBI arrested a former Hungarian freedom fighter, John Birges, at his home near Fresno, Calif., and charged him with the bombing. Both his sons testified against him in exchange for their freedom. Birges died in prison in 1996. Birges testified at his trial that he had lost $750,000 on the tables at Harvey’s. In a ransom note left on top of the bomb, which was disguised as an IBM copy machine, Birges demanded $3 million in $100 bills.
A helicopter delivering the ransom to a remote site outside Placerville never connected with Birges. His plan had called for the helicopter to fly over an area 15 miles west of Stateline and look for a beacon signal. But the helicopter, flown by an FBI pilot and carrying mostly phony money, cruised over the area for an hour and never saw the beacon.
Then, in the middle of the night, Gov. Bob List held a news conference at which he pleaded for the bomber to disarm the bomb and come up with clearer ransom directions. Birges was a suspect because of his gambling losses.
Maple, who retired after 20 years as Douglas County sheriff and now lives in Arkansas, chuckles in recalling how Birges was fingered. One of Birges’ teenage sons told his girlfriend that his father had made the bomb and placed it in Harvey’s.
After breaking up with Birges’ son, the girl went on a date with another man who took her to a Fresno area drive-in. While waiting for the movie to begin, the couple heard a news account on the radio about how police were looking for clues in the Harvey’s bombing. “The girl looked over to her new boyfriend and said ‘I know who did it. I used to date the Birges’ kid. His father did it. He told me about it,’ ” Maple said, recounting the incident. “The dollar signs then rolled in her new boyfriend’s head. The next morning he called the FBI.”
Jonkey said the young man later was given a large share of a $250,000 reward. The FBI agent remembers he talked daily with Birges for weeks, often showing up unannounced at his home in Clovis, Calif.
“Sometimes he would yell at us, other times he opened the door and let us in,” Jonkey said. “He gave us a tour of his place. He described how he would have done it if he had built the bomb. Ultimately he admitted everything.” Maple is thankful the ransom drop-off failed. He speculates Birges would have shot the pilot and flown the helicopter to the Placerville airport, where Birges’ girlfriend and one of his sons were waiting. From there they could have gone anywhere, he said.
Despite Birges’ building a bomb with 27 switches and eight firing mechanisms, Jonkey does not consider Birges an electronic whiz. He said anyone with a knowledge of electricity could have built the bomb. Birges had operated a landscaping company that installed lawn sprinklers. He used the knowledge he gained connecting electricity to sprinkler systems in building the firing mechanisms for the bomb, Jonkey said. But Maple does refer to Birges as James Bond.
Birges flew planes in the Hungarian air force and spent eight years in Siberia for opposing the Russians. And the ruse of disguising the bomb as an IBM copy machine to get it inside Harvey’s was brilliant, Maple said. “They pulled up to a side door at Harvey’s and said they had to unload the copy machine,” Maple said. “They said they had to set it up before the office opened that morning. The security guard basically held the door open for them.”
Bomb experts, including a Department of Energy team experienced in nuclear detonations, tried to disarm the bomb. In the ransom note, Birges said after he received the $3 million he would identify the switch to flip to render the bomb safe to move. He said the bomb should be taken to the middle of a nearby golf course because nothing would prevent it from eventually exploding. Though he didn’t say exactly when the explosion would occur.
After 33 hours of X-raying the bomb, talking with experts and debating options, Maple decided he could wait no longer. Authorities had to try to disarm the bomb. “We picked up some unusual sounds in the bomb, like something was stuck.” Jonkey said. “It got to be dangerous to stay there. We had to get everybody out.” They decided to detonate the upper box that contained the firing mechanisms. The theory was the bomb would not explode if they destroyed those mechanisms before an electrical charge reached the dynamite in the lower box.
Gross was told of their decision and gave his consent. “The one thing we had not discovered in the X-rays was the second power supply in the lower box,” Maple said. “Birges had thought of everything.” As a result, the bomb exploded. Harvey’s hotel did not reopen for a year, although the casino and some restaurants quickly reopened.
Today, Harveys no longer is spelled with an apostrophe and is a 740-room resort owned by Harrah’s. Maple said it would be harder today for someone to explode a bomb in a casino. Guards would be suspicious of someone rolling a copy machine into a casino at 4:45 a.m. But Maple won’t say it could not happen again.
“The policies and procedures are there to prevent it,” he said. “But it depends on people carrying them out. You are dealing with human factors. People make mistakes. It can happen again.”