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Harvey's Casino Bomb

Retired Special Agent Chris Ronay describes the FBI's role in the investigation of an "undefeatable" 1,000-pound bomb at a Nevada casino in 1980.


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Narrator: Chris Ronay, retired FBI Special Agent

Harvey's bomb was probably for me the biggest event, or the biggest bombing case I was ever involved with.

As the case developed we came to know that John Birges Sr. was the principal person involved in this case, along with his two sons, two other accomplices, and his girlfriend.

He needed money. His restaurant business was failing. It was an extortion to get money to save his business. He chose Harvey’s casino because he had lost money there. He said in this very involved letter that the device could not be disabled or moved. And that if the demand was met he would give instructions as to how to disable the bomb.

This device was a pretty sophisticated, quite complicated piece of machinery unlike anything we'd seen before, or anybody in the bomb disposal business had ever seen before.

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.

When I got out there and got the full story it was reported that somewhere in the middle of the night these fellows delivered this bomb on a cart or a dolly, rolled it into the casino main floor into an elevator and took it up to the administrative offices with a cover over it that said IBM, and it was ostensibly a delivery of a piece of office equipment.

The group consensus was they would try to create a tool, a shape-charge tool that could disrupt the device, basically cut it in half--take the brains in the top box away from the brawn in the bottom box.

When the device did detonate as designed when the attempt was made to render it safe, it exploded as intended and we had terrific damage in that building. But fortunately no one was injured because there was time for evacuation.

The neighboring casinos weren't necessarily evacuated if they were in a safe area. So the people that were there on holiday and gambling began to make book on when the bomb would go off, or if it would go off. I mean the casinos set up the gambling procedures on this event.

And the crowds gathered around at a safe distance and the device was functioned.

[Sound of large explosion, followed by cheers]

And this horrific explosion took place and the crowds cheered and there was reveling. And since no one was hurt it seemed to be a celebration the tourists kind of enjoyed and took part in. But, of course, that was just the beginning of the FBI's work trying to process the scene and gather evidence.

After the blast went off we had a little shock effect as the magnitude of this crime scene. Most of the people that we brought to bear to investigate this, myself included, had considerable experience with bombings and post-blast investigations, but nothing of this size.

This was complicated by the fact that on a casino floor there were millions of dollars in negotiable instruments--money and casino chips, coins in the machines. All of that had to be recovered and considered while we're searching for evidence.

The casino operation wanted to open part of their gambling area that was not damaged. And they did build this big wall and put a big picture window in it so that the gamblers could watch the FBI process the crime scene for the next few weeks.

From start to finish this case was a learning experience for everybody. So, as bad as it was, although no one was injured, it was really a beneficial training exercise.