The Exploding Casino

The Exploding Casino

August 26, 1980 - It was early on this day that a group of men dressed as delivery guys showed up at Harvey's Casino-Hotel in Stateline, Nevada. They explained to a security guard that they needed to drop off a new copy machine in the executive offices. The guard held open the door as they wheeled in a large piece of equipment.

Once employees started showing up for work, a lengthy ransom note was found taped to the machine. It explained in great detail how the large metal box was actually a bomb and that if the casino didn't cough up $3 million in $100 bills then 600 pounds of dynamite would be detonated.

The casino and hotel were quickly evacuated. The FBI was notified and bomb experts were soon converging on the mysterious metal box in Harvey's. After running extensive x-rays and every diagnostic trick in the FBI playbook, it was eventually determined that the bomb was virtually tamper-proof.

While technicians searched for a solution, another team worked on putting together a fake ransom package. The money was to be flown via helicopter to a remote location in the desert. A beacon would signal where the money was to be dropped. But when the helicopter flew to the requested spot, no beacon ever appeared. After circling for almost an hour, the helicopter returned with the ransom undelivered. The Governor of Nevada went on television and asked the extortionist to provide some better directions on where the ransom money should be deposited

Meanwhile, the guys working to defuse the bomb had come up with a plan. They would use a smaller "controlled" explosion to decapitate the mechanism of switches on top of the machine from the dynamite underneath. The bomb was surrounded with sandbags and everyone moved away to a safe distance. It didn't work. The main device had a secondary power supply that was designed to kick in and detonate the bomb. The blast was massive. It was the biggest homemade bomb explosion in U.S. history until the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It carved a huge cavern through 5 floors of Harvey's and cracked every window in the 250-room hotel-casino. Amazingly, nobody was injured.

The FBI quickly zeroed in on a suspect. John Birges was a millionaire who had run up a sizable debt in Harvey's casino. He had also served time in a Russian gulag before blowing it up and escaping. The real giveaway was when one of his sons told his girlfriend that his father had planted the bomb. She told another boyfriend and he contacted the FBI.

In the end, John Birges was sentenced to life in prison. His sons received reduced sentences for testifying against their father. John Birges died of liver cancer in 1996.

Harvey's casino is still around. It's now called Harveys Lake Tahoe (without the apostrophe).

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