Timeline of Events

October 6, 1979

John Birges, a retired landscaping contractor and restaurant owner from Clovis, California, rented a studio apartment, number 76, at the Aspen Grove Apartments in Stateline, Nevada, just a mile north of Harvey's Resort Hotel and Casino. He spent much of the next six months in Tahoe gambling at Harvey's, where he had been known as a "high roller" at the blackjack tables for the past several years. He also developed a plan to extort money from the casino, and used his time gambling there to observe the operations of the staff, the timing of security shift changes, and he even measured the height of the curb outside the lobby entrance, for when he would someday need to roll a bomb into the hotel. In the winter of 1980, Birges told his sons about his plans to build a bomb and extort money from Harvey's, but they did not think he was serious.

March 1980

The IRS filed for $34,000 in back taxes owed by John Birges.

June 10, 1980

John Birges and his sons, John W. Birges and Jim Birges, drove John Jr.'s white Dodge van into the Sierra Nevada mountains of Fresno County, east of Shaver Lake. They arrived in the early morning hours of June 11 at the construction site of the Helms Power Plant, an underground hydroelectric pumping facility near the Wishon Reservoir. At the construction site, they broke in to an explosives storage magazine, using a welding torch to cut off the locks, and stole more than 1,000 pounds of Hercules Unigel dynamite sticks. They returned to Birges' home, at 1590 North Fowler Avenue in Clovis, California, where the stolen Unigel explosives were stored in a walk-in freezer that Birges had built in the garage. With the explosive material in his possession, Birges would spend the next two months constructing a bomb, with multiple triggering mechanisms, large enough to contain nearly 1,000 pounds of explosives.

August 24, 1980

After his sons had refused to help him deliver the completed bomb to Harvey's, John Birges called Willis "Bill" Brown, a former employee at his landscaping business who had been looking for work. Brown and his son-in-law, Terry Lee Hall, drove over to Birges' house in Clovis, and they agreed to help him deliver his "machine" to Harvey's, with the promise that they would each receive $2,000 after Birges received the extortion payoff. They drove up to Lake Tahoe that night in the white Dodge van that Birges had borrowed from his older son, John Jr., with the bomb loaded in the back.

August 25, 1980

When John Birges, Bill Brown, and Terry Hall arrived in South Lake Tahoe, California, they stopped at the Lake Tahoe Airport off of U.S. Highway 50. Birges got out of the van with a briefcase and walked to a pay-phone, then returned a few minutes later. As they drove into the city, the sun was starting to rise and the van's engine was running poorly, so Birges decided that it was too late that day to make the delivery to Harvey's, and they drove back to the airport, where Birges got out again and returned to the van a few minutes later. They then drove to Harvey's Resort Hotel in Stateline, Nevada, where Birges showed Brown and Hall the lobby entrance where they would be delivering the "machine." They drove back across the state line and had breakfast at a local diner in California. Around 11 a.m., they checked in to room 8 of the Balahoe Motel, at 1313 Emerald Bay Road, just a couple blocks north of the Lake Tahoe Airport. Birges gave money to Hall for the registration, and Hall signed in with the false name "Joey Evetto," but the motel clerk wrote down the California license plate number of the van: 1A65819.

August 26, 1980

John Birges awoke around 2:30 a.m. and instructed Bill Brown and Terry Hall to clean up the room, remove any fingerprints they may have left, then drive the van down to the Lake Tahoe Airport and pick him up. Birges then walked down to the airport with his briefcase. When the van never showed up, he walked back up the hill to the motel, where he found Brown and Hall trying to start the engine, but the battery had died. They called a tow truck to jump-start the van. Once the van was started, they drove to Stateline and pulled into the parking lot behind Harrah's, where they "borrowed" a license plate from another van and fastened it over their own using rubber bands. They then drove back to the California side of the state line, across the street from Harvey's Resort Hotel, where they unloaded the "machine" from the back of the van, using metal ramps and a rope-and-pulley system that Birges had constructed. They then tied the bomb, on a rolling cart, to the back bumper of the van, and towed it across the street to the parking lot behind Harvey's. Brown and Hall pushed the cart to the lobby entrance, where the height of the rolling cart matched the height of the curb, while Birges parked the van nearby. At the curb, Brown and Hall rolled the bomb, covered by a cloth with an "IBM" logo, off the cart and into the hotel lobby, where Hall pushed the bomb into the elevator and took it up to the second floor, while Brown went back and picked up the cart, loaded it into the van, and drove the van across the street to the Harrah's parking lot. Birges met Hall on the second floor, and helped him position the bomb in a corridor near the casino's business offices. Birges then used toothpicks and glue to jam the locks on doors at either end of the corridor, to prevent someone from wandering by and accidentally triggering the bomb. Birges left a three-page extortion note in an envelope next to the bomb, then he and Hall walked across Highway 50 and met Brown at the van behind Harrah's. After discarding their borrowed license plate, they drove back into California and returned home to Fresno County. Birges slept most of the way as Brown drove, because he was going to be busy the following night.

August 26, 1980

Shortly before 6:00 a.m., Robert M. Vinson, the graveyard shift slot manager at Harvey's, walked out of his office on the second floor of the casino and found that someone had closed the doors at either end of the hallway and filled the locks with glue. He also saw a large, metal device in the hallway with an envelope next to it. Vinson contacted Richard Lawson and William A. Schonfeld at the security desk on the main floor of the casino. After going upstairs to look at the doors in the second-floor hallway, and the metal device and envelope left in the hallway, Schonfeld had other security officers secure the area and they called Simon "Pete" Caban, Jr., the security supervisor, and Bud Briggs, the casino shift manager. Caban and security officer Wayne Watt, initially thinking the envelope on the floor might be a letter bomb, poked at the letter with broom handles while taking cover behind the large metal device in the hallway. Once they determined it was just a letter, they opened the envelope and found the extortion note, stating that the metal machine was a bomb, and that it could not be disarmed or moved without setting it off. The note demanded $3 million in cash, delivered by helicopter, in exchange for instructions to safely disarm and move the bomb. Bob Strafford, chief of security, was notified, along with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the fire department. Security shift sergeant Richard Lawson, whose father was a longtime bomb disposal expert for the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office, implemented the emergency evacuation plan that his father had helped create for the casino, getting all guests and employees out of the hotel within 50 minutes.

August 26, 1980

Fire Chief Bruce D. Kanoff, of the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District, and the Tahoe Douglas Bomb Squad worked to analyze the improvised explosive device, while Douglas County Sheriff's deputies collected fingerprints and other forensic evidence from the device. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office, South Lake Tahoe Police Department, Nevada Highway Patrol, California Highway Patrol, and El Dorado County Sheriff's Office helped to set up a safe perimeter around the casino on both sides of the state line. Special Agent William Jonkey, of the FBI's Carson City resident agency, soon arrived to oversee the investigation of the extortion case. Since the extortion letter demanded a ransom drop via helicopter, the FBI contacted Special Agent Joe E. Cook, a U.S. Navy veteran who had flown nearly 1,000 hours in a helicopter in Vietnam. Special Agent Cook flew an FBI helicopter from Los Angeles up to South Lake Tahoe, and landed in the Heavenly Valley parking lot around 11 p.m. Special Agent Nicolas V. O'Hara arrived with three canvas bags from Harvey's Inn (another Tahoe casino owned by Harvey Gross), filled with stacks of paper cut in the shape of money and topped with a few $100 bills supplied by Harvey's management. The bags were loaded into the helicopter and Cook was directed to go to the Lake Tahoe Airport, fill the helicopter with fuel, and await contact from the extortionists, as detailed in the extortion letter.

August 26, 1980

After returning to his Fresno County home that afternoon, John Birges informed his girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, and his two sons, John and Jim Birges, that he had delivered the bomb to Harvey's, and he would need all of them to help him collect the ransom money to be delivered that night. They drove two cars up to El Dorado County. Birges directed Ella Joan Williams to drive her silver Toyota Celica to the Cameron Park Airport, west of Placerville, where she would wait for Birges to land in a helicopter and drive him back home. Birges and his two sons drove his gold Volvo east on U.S. Highway 50 to the planned ransom drop site off of Ice House Road, north of Highway 50 between Placerville and Kyburz, where they planned to signal the helicopter to land using a strobe light then highjack the helicopter at gunpoint, but they discovered that they had forgotten to bring an extra battery to power the light, so they drove up the highway to Kyburz, where they tried to steal a battery from an old Volkswagen parked outside a service station. Hearing intruders outside his business late at night, the owner of the garage, Jesse James Martin, came out yelling and scared them off. Birges and his sons drove back down Highway 50 to Placerville, where they purchased a new car battery at Colvin's Shell Service Station. They then drove back up to Ice House Road, and John Birges got out with his younger son, Jim, at a clearing in the mountains. They took with them the strobe light, battery, and three guns: a .303 British, a .22 caliber Remington, and a .357 Magnum.

August 27, 1980

After dropping off his father and younger brother on Ice House Road, John Birges, Jr., drove a few miles west on Highway 50 to Pacific House, where he used a pay-phone to call the Lake Tahoe Airport shortly after midnight and inform the helicopter pilot that instructions for the ransom drop were hidden under a table below the phone. John Jr. then drove the Volvo south to a clearing near Ham's Station on Highway 88, where he was to await the stolen helicopter that his father would be flying. Their father planned to drop off Jim with the ransom money, and the brothers would drive back to Fresno County in the Volvo while their father flew the helicopter alone to the Cameron Park Airport, where Ella Joan Williams was waiting to pick him up.

August 27, 1980

Shortly after midnight, Special Agent Cook got a call at the Lake Tahoe Airport from a young man who told him, "Your instructions are located beneath the table in front of you." Cook found a metal plate taped below the pay-phone, concealing a letter that instructed him to follow U.S. Highway 50 approximately 15 miles west from the airport, then look for a strobe light on the right that would be his signal to land. Cook took off and flew along Highway 50 over Echo Summit, to what he estimated to be 15 miles, but he could not find the strobe light. He continued to circle the area for more than an hour, then returned to the Lake Tahoe Airport and waited by the phone again for 45 minutes, in case the extortionists would call back. But they never did. The FBI contacted Nevada Governor Robert F. List, who made a public appeal around 2:30 a.m. for the extortionists to contact authorities again. Using cryptic language that the extortionists might understand, Governor List requested a "clarifying message due to failure to enlighten, and in confusion in following the previous directions."

August 27, 1980

About 25 miles west of the Lake Tahoe Airport, John Birges and his 18-year-old son, Jim, waited in a clearing off of Ice House Road. The helicopter never arrived, so they began removing bullets from the guns they had brought with them, using the powder to start a fire to keep warm in the cold mountain air. The next morning, around 6 a.m., they hid the strobe light, battery, guns, and other equipment they had brought with them, and started walking down Ice House Road toward Highway 50 five miles below.

August 27, 1980

About 20 miles to the south, in a clearing near Ham's Station on Highway 88, John Birges, Jr., was parked in his father's Volvo, waiting for his father to fly overhead in the stolen helicopter and drop the ransom money when John Jr. signaled him with a strobe light connected to the car's battery. When the helicopter hadn't arrived by 5 a.m., John Birges Jr. drove back up to the Cameron Park Airport, where his father's girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams, had been parked since the previous evening, waiting for the helicopter to land and to drive John Birges, Sr., back to Clovis. On the way to the airport, John Birges, Jr., struck a deer, denting the left front fender of his father's Volvo. When he arrived at the Cameron Park Airport, Williams told him she had heard a message from the Nevada governor on the radio, asking them to make contact again. Williams then followed John Jr. in her Toyota Celica back to the site where he had dropped off his father and brother the night before. On the winding Ice House Road, Williams did not make it around a hair-pin turn, and smashed her Celica into the side of the mountain. John Birges, Jr., went back and picked her up, then met his father and brother, who were walking down the road from the clearing. After going back to pick up the strobe light and guns they had left behind, they drove Williams to Marshall Hospital in Placerville, to be treated for facial contusions and a bloody nose she sustained in the crash.

August 27, 1980

Tahoe Douglas Bomb Squad captains Frank C. "Danny" Danihel, Carl Paulson and Larry Chapman, along with bomb experts from around the nation (including U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal personnel Lt. Fulman and Sgt. McNeal, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, and Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom J. Huddleston), examined X-rays of the improvised explosive device taken by the bomb squad and discussed a number of possible "render-safe" procedures. Leonard Wolfson, from the Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland, proposed using a Monroe-effect shaped charge, an explosive device that would focus a flat jet of energy and cut through the bomb like a knife in less than a millisecond. This might sever all wires leading from the triggering mechanisms in the top box to the explosives in the bottom box.

August 27, 1980

At 6:43 a.m., after leaving Ella Joan Williams at the hospital in Placerville, John Birges and his sons stopped at a nearby Beacon gas station, where John Birges, Jr., at his father's direction, used a pay-phone to call the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in Stateline. He told sheriff's dispatcher Kathleen Jo Cook to flip switch No. 5 on the bomb's bank of switches, then await further instructions. (The switch would not actually do anything; they just needed to stall for time until they could arrange another ransom drop.) Around 7 a.m., John Birges, Jr., was speeding down Highway 50 to get back home to Fresno County, where he was supposed to be at work that day. West of Shingle Springs, CHP officer James C. Bergenholtz pulled over the Volvo and issued the 19-year-old a citation. Bergenholtz noted on the citation that there were also two male passengers in the Volvo. When they got back home to Clovis, California, John Birges, Jr., went to work, and Jim used his red Toyota pickup to drive his father back to pick up Williams at the hospital.

August 27, 1980

After the Douglas County Sheriff's Office received a phone call telling them to flip switch No. 5, the bomb squad and other experts rigged a lanyard with a series of pulleys, and was prepared to remotely flick switch No. 5, but they decided against that plan, since they did not know what flipping the switch would do. They decided to use the linear shaped charge to separate the top box of the bomb from the lower box containing the explosives. Dimensions were calculated for the shaped charge, and the metal case for it was manufactured by defense contractor EG&G in Las Vegas and flown up to Lake Tahoe. The case was filled with C4 plastic explosive and it was primed with a No. 8 military electric blasting cap in each end, then placed on a 2-by-4 board atop a table facing the bomb.

August 27, 1980

Next door, in a suite at the Sahara-Tahoe Casino overlooking his own evacuated hotel, Harvey A. Gross met with FBI Special Agent William Jonkey, Special Agent in Charge Joseph Yablonsky, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Herbert Hawkins, Tahoe-Douglas Fire Chief Bruce D. Kanoff, and Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston. They informed Gross of the bomb squad's render-safe plan with the shaped charge, and that it had a high possibility of failure. Gross was distressed that an explosion would put hundreds of his employees out of work. By 3:43 p.m., the surrounding area had been evacuated, and the bomb experts remotely detonated the shaped charge.

August 27, 1980

On their way back to Placerville, John Birges and his son Jim stopped at 3:51 p.m. at a payphone in front of Antonio's Restaurant in Ione, California, where Jim Birges, at his father's direction, made another call to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, telling them to await further instructions. A few minutes later, John and Jim Birges heard a news report on the radio that the bomb at Harvey's had just been detonated in an attempt to disarm it. They arrived at the hospital to pick up Williams, and they saw a replay of the explosion on television. They then contacted the CHP to file an accident report, and arranged to have Williams' smashed Celica towed from Ice House Road.

August 28, 1980

The day after the bomb exploded at Harvey's, John Birges called Bill Brown and Terry Hall to his house in Clovis, California. He told them he had plans to make another bomb, and he would still get some extortion money. Birges warned the two men, who had helped him deliver the bomb to Harvey's, to remain silent about their involvement and that, if they talked, he could have them eliminated, even if he were in jail.

August 30, 1980

FBI Special Agent Steven D. Broce was sent to the Balahoe Motel in South Lake Tahoe to investigate a report that a couple of men with a white van had stayed there the night before the bomb was placed in Harvey's. The owners of the motel, Gerald and Nancy De Minico, provided to the FBI the registration card on which Nancy had written down the license plate number of the white Dodge van.

September 2, 1980

The registration unit of the California Department of Motor Vehicles traced the license plate number from the motel to a 1975 Dodge cargo van, registered to the Villa Basque restaurant, at 6584 North Blackstone Street in Fresno, owned by John Birges, Sr.  The FBI would later determine that the van was in the possession of his son, John Waldo Birges, residing at 5265 North Fowler Avenue in Clovis, California.

September 3, 1980

After some of the rubble was cleared, gas leaks were addressed, and Harvey's was deemed safe to enter, FBI investigators began a thorough search of the building, sifting through debris to look for evidence through the end of the month. Close to a dozen special agents with training in bombing scenes were brought in from FBI offices in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles to conduct the search. The Army National Guard was brought in to help secure the perimeter of the crime scene.

September 23, 1980

Another 922 pounds of Unigel dynamite with primers was stolen from the Helms Power Plant construction site. About a month later, John Birges would borrow his son Jim's pickup truck and return to the site, stealing about 900 pounds of DuPont Tovex, an ammonium nitrate-based water gel explosive. He stashed the explosives inside his walk-in freezer, and later had his son Jim help him bury it along a dry creek bed in Clovis, about seven miles from their home. Birges planned to use the explosives in another bomb, to be used in a second extortion plot.

Fall 1980

FBI agents interviewed John Waldo Birges about his van being in Tahoe the morning the bomb was delivered to Harvey's. He made up a story that he had driven the van to Ham's Station, south of Lake Tahoe, to scout the area for a place to plant marijuana; he said the van's battery had died, so he left it there and hitchhiked home to Fresno County, later returning with his brother to jump-start the van and drive it home.

February 1981

John Waldo Birges was called to testify before the federal grand jury in Reno, Nevada, where he repeated his marijuana story under oath.

May 4, 1981

The FBI announced a reward of $500,000 for information on the bombers was being offered by Harvey's and other private donors, increased from an earlier reward of $200,000. The new reward would spark additional tips, which would lead the FBI back to inestigate the Birges family in Fresno County, California.

May 13, 1981

In Stateline, Nevada, at a cost of about $18 million, the hotel tower of Harvey's Resort Hotel and Casino had been re-built and officially opened to the public at a 1 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony, attended by founder Harvey Gross. The hotel tower featured a new glass curtain-wall façade, Italian granite, and ceramic tile, along with a new fire protection system throughout the building, plus increased security procedures.

August 14, 1981

After months of surveillance and investigation, the FBI arrested John Waldo Birges, 20, on suspicion of perjury before a federal grand jury. The agents questioned him and told him he might receive leniency from the U.S. Attorney if he cooperates and tells them everything he knows about the bombing. The FBI agents brought in his younger brother, Jim Birges, 18, and offered him the same deal.

August 15, 1981

With the brothers' cooperation, the FBI had enough evidence to arrest their father, John Birges, and his girlfriend, Ella Joan Williams.

August 16, 1981

FBI agents arrested Willis "Bill" Brown and Terry Lee Hall, who had helped deliver the bomb to Harvey's nearly a year earlier.

August 17, 1981

FBI agents, including Sherry L. Harris, executed a search warrant at the home of John Birges, at 1590 North Fowler Avenue in Clovis, California.

August 17, 1981

Suspects John Birges, 59, Ella Joan Williams, 47, Willis Brown, 50, and Terry Lee Hall, 25, were arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Alan Christensen in Fresno. Bail for Birges was set at $2 million, while the others were held on $1 million each. The two Birges sons were released on their own recognizance.

August 18, 1981

A federal grand jury in Reno, Nevada, issued four-count indictments against each of the six suspects in the Harvey's bombing, including charges of attempts to interfere with commerce by threats of violence, interstate travel in aid of extortion, transportation of explosives in interstate commerce, and conspiracy to attempt extortion. Ed Kane, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Reno, said the two Birges sons would receive lighter punishment due to their cooperation.

August 28, 1981

Suspects John Birges, Ella Joan Williams, Willis "Bill" Brown, and Terry Lee Hall appeared in United States District Court in Reno, Nevada, for a hearing of their motions to reduce their bail.

September 8, 1981

Brothers John Waldo Birges and James W. Birges each pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy for their part in the Harvey's Casino bombing.