Crime - Sacto 911

What happened to suspects in 1980 extortion-bombing at Harvey’s casino?

August 1980: A bomb explodes during an attempt to disarm it and blows a two-to-three-story hole in the side of Harvey's Resort Hotel at Lake Tahoe.
August 1980: A bomb explodes during an attempt to disarm it and blows a two-to-three-story hole in the side of Harvey's Resort Hotel at Lake Tahoe. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Q: This happened decades ago, but in 1980 a bomb was placed in Harvey’s Casino Lake Tahoe for ransom by two or three people, possibly a father and son. The bomb went off and they eventually were sent to prison, but who were they and are they still incarcerated and where?

Steve, Folsom

A: John Birges Sr., the convicted mastermind of the 1980 extortion attempt that resulted in an explosion at Harvey’s Resort Hotel/Casino at Lake Tahoe, died of liver cancer in a Nevada prison in 1996.

Birges was 74 when he died at the Southern Nevada Correctional Center in Jean 16 years and one day after a 1,000-pound homemade bomb was rolled into the casino with a $3 million extortion note, according to an Associated Press story. He was convicted in 1981 on federal bombing and extortion charges. In 1985, he was convicted on separate but related state charges.

A self-described Hungarian freedom fighter, Birges immigrated to the United Sates in 1957, and by 1971, he had become a millionaire as a result of a successful landscaping and sprinkler business in the Fresno area. But he was also a gambler and had run up an $800,000 debt at Harvey’s.

On Aug. 26, 1980, casino employees found the bomb, disguised as computer equipment, in an office area. The extortion note demanded $3 million in used $100 bills in exchange for information on how to stop the bomb from exploding.

Bomb experts were summoned and after 33 hours of analysis, authorities tried to defuse the device with an explosive charge designed to dismantle an elaborate switch system, according to the AP story. The explosion ripped a huge hole in the side of the 11-story hotel casino, which had been evacuated. Harvey’s was closed for about eight months and the cost of rebuilding was about $12 million.

Birges did not receive any extortion money.

A chief witness against Birges during his trial was his then-23-year-old son, James Birges, who took part in the plot along with his brother, John Birges Jr. The brothers agreed to testify against their father and other defendants in exchange for probation.

The senior John Birges’ girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, was convicted of similar charges in federal court and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. Her trial on state charges ended in a mistrial. A retrial was scheduled, but in May 1985, Williams pleaded guilty to being an accessory in the extortion-bombing and got a recommendation for parole from prosecutors, the AP reported.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy

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