A Byte Out of History - Harvey's Casino Bomb
A Byte Out of History
The Case of the Harvey's Casino Bomb
After authorities evacuated Harvey's casino and the surrounding area, experts attempted to disarm
In the early morning hours of August 26, 1980—29 years ago today—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.
So began one of the most unusual cases in our history.
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 Ricter scale.”
The Extortion Note
“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.”
An investigator examines the Harvey's bomb, which contained nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite and a variety of triggering mechanisms that made it virtually undefeatable.
The “creator,” we 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.
The device—two steel boxes stacked one atop the other—contained nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite. Inside the resort, Birges made sure the bomb was exactly level, then armed it using at least eight triggering mechanisms.
“We had never seen anything quite like it,” said retired Special Agent Chris Ronay, an explosives examiner who was called to the scene along with other experts.
The blast caused immense damage, creating a five-story chasm in the casino.
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. “Looking up from ground level,” Ronay said, “you could see TV sets swinging on electric cords and toilets hanging on by pipes. Debris was everywhere.” Fortunately, because of the evacuation, no one was killed or injured.
To this day, the Harvey’s bomb remains one of the most unique improvised explosives devices (IEDs) the Bureau has ever come across.
“Today’s IEDs use more advanced electronics,” said Special Agent Thomas Mohnal, an 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—he never did get the ransom money. His two sons, charged as accomplices, were given suspended sentences because they cooperated with authorities. Birges died in jail in 1996.
Today, a mockup of the Harvey’s bomb—built for Birges’ trial—with all its booby traps and fusing mechanisms, is used for training purposes by our Laboratory Division.