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Harvey’s Casino Bombing Revisited in ‘Bringing Down the House’ Documentary

A new documentary is examining a decades-old bombing plot. On Aug. 27, 1980, two men disguised as photocopier installers delivered a booby-trapped bomb to Harvey’s Resort Hotel Stateline, Nev., on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Harvey’s Casino bombing, Bringing Down the House, Stateline, Lake Tahoe
Blast from the past: The image above is taken by an FBI employee, just as the bomb, packed with 1,000 pounds of TNT, ripped through Harvey’s Casino Resort in August 1980. (Image: US Department of Justice)

The plotters told the FBI that the bomb couldn’t be diffused, even by its maker. But the combination of switches required to release it so that it could be detonated remotely in a secure location, would be provided in return for a $3 million ransom. Ultimately, the extortion plot failed, but the bomb exploded, destroying most of the casino.

“Bringing Down the House: The Bombing of Harvey’s Casino” airs Wednesday night on KCRA 3 Sacramento and is available to watch nationwide via the Go Local streaming platform.

The feature-length documentary, a collaboration between KCRA and Go Live, revisits the extraordinary events surrounding the plot and hears testimonies from those involved.

Sophisticated Bomb

The Harvey’s bomb was no ordinary bomb. Delivered to the casino’s second floor executive offices at around 5:30 a.m., it was packed with 1,000 pounds of TNT.

It had three separate timers, each set for different explosion times. It was filled with circuitry and 28 switches, some of which would make the bomb go off and some of which were fakes. There was a toilet float inside, which meant attempting to flood the bomb would cause the float to rise and detonate it. An atmospheric pressure switch would set it off, too. Any attempt to tilt it or drill into it would also result in a devastating explosion.

The FBI has described it as possibly the most sophisticated improvised explosive device ever made anywhere in the world, and it is studied to this day in FBI training school.

The Mastermind

Curiously, though, the plot’s mastermind had little experience building bombs. John Birges Sr. was a Hungarian immigrant to Clovis, Calif., who had flown for the Luftwaffe during WW2. He was captured by the Russians and spent eight years in a Soviet gulag.

After he arrived in the US, he built a successful landscaping business and became wealthy. But he had a gambling problem. Birges claimed he lost $750K at Harvey’s – more than $2 million in today’s money – and he wanted revenge.

Plot Unravels, Bomb Goes Off

The FBI attempted to deliver the ransom but later claimed they went to the wrong place because of vague directions. Birges was waiting for it at a different location.

Meanwhile, bomb technicians determined the best way of diffusing the device would be to separate the detonators from the dynamite using a shaped charge of C-4 explosive. They didn’t realize dynamite had also been placed in the box containing the detonation circuit.

Birges’ claim in his ransom note that the bomb could not be disarmed proved to be accurate.

No one was killed or injured in the blast, and Harvey’s, now Harvey’s Lake Tahoe, a Caesars property, was rebuilt.

Birges was arrested in 1981 following a tipoff to the FBI from the ex-girlfriend of one of his sons. Birges’ two sons testified against their father at trial, admitting they were in on the plot, but argued they were bullied into it by their overbearing father. Neither served prison time.

Birges was sentenced to life and died in prison in 1996 at the age of 74.

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Kentucky House Passes Sports Betting Bill By Nearly 2-to-1 Margin

The Kentucky House passed a bill to legalize sports betting in the state early Monday evening.

State Rep. Michael Meredith discusses House Bill 551, which would legalize sports betting in the state, on the House floor Monday. The bill passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin and now heads to the Senate. (Image:

The 62-34 vote on House Bill 551 cleared the three-fifths majority supporters needed to get since the bill generates revenue and makes appropriations in a non-budget year.

The bill would allow Kentucky’s nine racetracks to offer retail sportsbooks at its tracks and simulcasting facilities. It also would allow tracks to partner with up to three mobile operators each.

Tracks would pay $500,000 for a license, with an annual renewal fee of $50,000. Operators would pay a $50,000 license fee and an annual renewal fee of $10,000.

Retail sports betting revenues would be taxed at 9.75% of adjusted gross revenues, while online operators would pay a 14.25% tax. The only deductions allowed would be for the .25% federal excise tax the federal government places on each wager.

It’s the second straight year the House has passed a bill. Once again, the bill now heads to the Senate, where last year’s bill died after failing to get a committee hearing or a floor vote before the session ended. This year, the bill will need 23 yes votes to pass in the 37-member Senate.

However, supporters are expressing optimism for this year’s bill, even as just five legislative days remain in the session.

State Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, the bill’s primary sponsor, believes they are about a couple of votes away from the 23 they need to pass the bill in the Senate this year.

Problem Gaming Fund Added to Bill

One reason for Meredith’s optimism is what was included in a House floor amendment Monday. That bill included a provision for a problem gaming fund, with that fund receiving 2.5% of the tax revenue generated annually.

That was explicitly added, Meredith said, because a couple of senators requested it.

Hopefully, that’ll shore up those (votes), and we’ll narrow it down,” Meredith told after the bill’s passage.

The problem gaming fund was one that state Rep. Al Gentry had championed, D-Louisville, who has been the primary co-sponsor on sports betting legislation in the House.

Gentry had filed a bill earlier in the session that would have created a problem gaming fund that would have received money from all sectors of legal gaming in Kentucky. While this fund would only be covered by sports betting tax revenue, he told he was still delighted to see it inserted.

Kentucky is one of a few states that does not have a problem gambling fund.

“I put a lot of work into pushing that for a few years now and glad to see it’s in there,” he said.

In addition, both Meredith and state Rep. Matt Koch, R-Paris, have talked about bringing up a more comprehensive problem gaming fund for next year’s session.

The problem gaming fund was the second significant positive change for the bill. Last week, the House Licensing, Occupations, and Administrative Regulations Committee approved a substitute bill that removed a 12-month, in-person licensing requirement for mobile account registrations.

While the House passed Meredith’s floor amendment, two others brought by a bill opponent failed.

State Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington, sought to ban the use of credit cards for sports betting deposits and raise the minimum age to place a wager on a sporting event from 18 to 21. Both failed, with the age change falling by a 39-48 vote.

Calloway, after his amendments were defeated, said on the floor that he would not stop fighting for Kentuckians, especially against things that can “destroy people’s lives permanently.”

Time Running Out in Kentucky General Assembly

Supporters of the sports betting bill received good news last week when an advanced agenda for Tuesday’s Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee hearing included HB 551. However, Meredith said , after Monday’s vote, the committee may not take up his bill until possibly Wednesday. The Senate L&O Committee is also expected to take up the gray/skill games bill that passed the House last week and a bill that would legalize medical marijuana.

While Meredith and other supporters express optimism about the bill’s chances, the clock is running out on this year’s session.

After Monday, there are just five legislative days remaining. Three of them take place this week, with lawmakers recessing starting on Thursday for Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto consideration period.

The session will conclude on March 29-30.

Another thing the bill has in its favor is Beshear’s support. He campaigned four years ago on legalizing sports betting and reiterated that support earlier this year in his State of the Commonwealth address.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a veto,” Meredith said. “So, I think everybody’s pretty comfortable sitting it down until after the veto period.”

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