When gambling addiction goes too far: the story of a casino bomber
Reading time: 12 min, 2357 words
Rating: 7.6
Rating: 6.3

When gambling addiction goes too far: the story of a casino bomber

Categories: crime, offline casinos 3 May 2023 252 0

It was August 26, 1980, and you were at a casino in some Old Town in Nevada, playing roulette. Unfortunately, luck wasn't on your side, and you had been losing all night. You thought about giving up and going home, but then you remembered that 90% of all gambling addicts quit right before they hit it big.

So, you put down your last $300 on red. You didn't know what it was, but you had this feeling in your gut that red was going to hit. The dealer screamed, "No more bets," and the wheel started spinning. Adrenaline was coursing through your body so hard that you thought you might pass out. As the wheel slowed down, your heart beat faster and faster. Then, after what seemed like an eternity of spinning, the ball finally stopped, and it landed on black. You were mad at yourself, mad at the world, but most of all, mad at this stupid casino. You wished somebody would just blow the whole place up.

Meanwhile, two delivery drivers pulled up to the back of the casino, carrying a huge metal device. As soon as they dropped it off inside, they sprinted out of the building like the thing was going to explode or something. There was something off about this thing. When a security guard went to check it out, he noticed there was a note on top of it that read, 

"This is a bomb. I repeat, do not try to move or disarm this bomb. It will explode. It contains enough TNT to severely damage the entire block."

Whoa. This wasn't good. The security guard wasn't getting paid nearly enough to deal with this Tom Foolery, so he called the bomb squad immediately. But they were stumped. This was unlike any other bomb they've ever seen. It was more complicated than a white girl's Starbucks order. Experts from all over the world tried to defuse it with no luck. And then, wait, the bomb exploded and destroyed the casino.

This is the story of the Harvey's Hotel Bomb Heist, a story so insane, I'm surprised it hasn't been made into an unnecessarily long Netflix documentary.

The beginnings of Harvey's Hotel Resort and Casino

Our story begins in Stateline, Nevada, a town that you probably never heard of. It's like Vegas, but shittier. Wait, no, it's like Reno, but shittier. The only reason this town even exists is that people in Lake Tahoe, California, wanted to gamble, but they didn't want to drive all the way down to Vegas. Hence the name State Line because it's located on the state line of Nevada and California.

There are four main casinos in this town, including Harvey's Hotel Resort and Casino, which was started by a guy named Harvey Gross. Harvey wasn't your typical scumbag casino owner. He was a butcher from Sacramento who, after years of hard work, scraped together enough cash to open up his little business in 1944.

Gross and his wife opened up Harvey's Wagon Wheel Saloon and Gambling Hall, a single room casino with three slot machines and two blackjack tables. Right from the start, business was booming. The Wagon Wheel became the most popular casino in the Lake Tahoe area because it was the only casino in the Lake Tahoe area. By the 1950s, The Wagon Wheel had grown into an 11-story, 197-room hotel with more degenerates, prostitutes, and gambling addicts than a Super Smash Bros convention.

Things weren't going too bad for old Harvey Gross, but all of that would change on August 26, 1980, at 5:30 a.m.

The delivery

Two men dressed as delivery drivers pulled up to Harvey's and dropped off a large metal contraption. They dropped it off on the second floor and quickly left the building. Now, we would later find out that the delivery guys themselves didn't even know what they were carrying, but they were assured by their boss it was no big deal. Yeah, that was a lie.

For a while, nobody paid attention to the thing. Most people just assumed it was one of those fancy IBM computers. But eventually, a security guard went to check it out and noticed there was a note sitting on top of it. So, he leaned up against the device and started reading.


The security guard read the note out loud, 

"Stern warning to the management and bomb squad do not move or tilt this bomb because the mechanism controlling the detonators will set off at the slightest movement. This bomb is so sensitive that the slightest movement either inside or outside will cause it to explode."

The guard continued, 

"This bomb can never be dismantled or disarmed without causing an explosion. Not even by the Creator. Only by proper instruction can it be moved to a safe place where it can be deliberately exploded."

The note also stated that the bomb contained enough TNT to severely damage hairs across the street, and advised a minimum 1200 feet radius to cordon off the area and remove all people.

The security guard became increasingly concerned, and called the bomb squad, who confirmed that it was indeed a bomb. The bomb squad revealed that this was no ordinary bomb, but the most complex and intricate bomb they had ever seen.

Harvey's casino bomb

The demands

The note also contained a set of demands, including a ransom of three million dollars in used 100 dollar bills, unmarked, unbugged, and chemically untreated. The note warned that any issue with the money would halt all instructions on moving the bomb.

The state line police department quickly realized they were in over their heads, and called the FBI to assist. The FBI noticed that the note also contained a set of detailed instructions for the ransom delivery, and they believed it was their best bet at catching whoever was behind it all.

The ransom demanded a helicopter delivery, with the pilot receiving instructions at the Lake Tahoe Airport via a nearby payphone. The pilot was to be given the drop-off location in the middle of a forest, where somebody would be waiting with a strobe light.

If the money was received without any issues, six sets of instructions regarding the removal of the bomb would be given at different times. The plan seemed foolproof, but the FBI didn't have that much money, and had to resort to mixing real money with newspaper to make it look like they had more than they actually had.

The helicopter pilot flew to the airport and received a call at the payphone, with a set of coordinates. He flew to the spot, but there were no strobe lights. He searched the area for hours until his helicopter ran out of gas and he had to head back to the airport.

It turned out that the criminals had given the pilot the wrong location. This was a major setback for both the criminals and the FBI, as the only option now was to swarm Harvey's.

Despite the fact that there was a literal weapon of mass destruction ready to blow up at any minute, people in Stateline were having a good time. People were coming from all over the country to witness the chaos, and it was like a circus.

However, the circus brought one good thing, a civilian named Leonard Wolfson came up with the genius idea to use another bomb.


Okay, it might sound stupid, but Mr. Wolfson was well respected in his field. He was an explosives expert or something and consulted with the Navy. He knew what he was talking about. I'll try to simplify this as much as possible, but basically, the bomb had a brain, and all the fuses were connected to it. So, if they used the smaller bomb to blow up the work area, it had "thank you." I know this looks bad, but surprisingly, everybody was okay. Steve made it out fine. They detonated the charge from a remote spot, but the casino was f*****. The bomb had blown a 60-foot wide hole in the building that went from the basement all the way to the fifth floor. Okay, it's like a miracle this building was still standing, but it was looking like Harvey's checkbook was about to run dry.

This whole fiasco was really bad PR for the FBI, and they were pissed that they got outsmarted by these schmucks. So they were working overtime to catch whoever was responsible, and they had a pretty good idea of who it might be. The number one suspect was Harvey Gross. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, hold on a second. Why would this man blow up his hotel? That doesn't make any sense. Well, the FBI discovered that not only could he afford it, but he could fund it with that sweet, sweet insurance payout he was about to get. Who would have thought that all it took to get the commission on his side was a little act of domestic terrorism? With all that in mind, Harvey was starting to look like the perfect suspect.

The FBI subpoenaed him, searched his home, interrogated him for hours, and even made him take a polygraph test, but the guy was clean. He was probably the only casino owner in the world that wasn't a criminal, so now they were back to square one. They even put out a $200,000 reward, which was like a billion dollars in today's currency. Despite all of that, their leads were Kaka. The reward money was actually hurting them more than it was helping because all sorts of people were calling in making ridiculous claims to try to cash in.

But after weeks and weeks of sifting through dog, the Feds finally had a solid lead. They received the tip from the owner of the Balaho Motel, which was just a few miles down the road. The tip led them to John Burgess, who was a regular high roller at Harvey's.

John Burgess

John Burgess
John Burgess

Big John spent so much time around at Harvey's casino that he became a high roller, and the staff treated him like royalty. He even became friends with Harvey himself.

Yes, it's true that his van was near the hotel the night before the bombing, but that could have just been him bragging to his girlfriend all about how he and his daddy were gonna plant the bomb in a casino. After the two of them broke up, she told her new boyfriend, and when he saw that sweet, sweet reward money, he just had to call the police and tell them the whole story. I mean, it would be fiscally irresponsible not to at that point, so he told them everything.

Basically, John Burgess was a putz. He drank a lot and frequently beat the crap out of his wife and kids. One day he burned down his own restaurant, collecting the insurance money of which he pocketed three hundred thousand dollars. He lost it almost instantly, and when he was completely out of money, he started borrowing cash from Harvey. 

After the tip, the bureau was convinced that John Burgess and his two sons were behind the heist, but they needed something more solid if the charges were going to stick. So they started watching the Burgesses 24/7. The three of them couldn't take a shit without the FBI knowing how it smelled. But after two weeks of 24-hour surveillance, they had nothing.

One of the officers arrested and convinced Johnny Jr that his dear old dad threw him under the bus and ratted on his sons.

Now John Jr knew that they were probably lying, but it wasn't worth the risk. He wasn't about to go to jail for his old man, after all, the guy was a scumbag. So after talking it over, the two sons decided to "kill" their dad, well, figuratively. They told the cops everything: how Big John was desperate for money, how he approached them with his scheme, how he got them involved.

In 1982, John Senior was convicted on charges of federal extortion and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His two sons served no jail time in exchange for them testifying against their old man. Years later, John Junior would write a memoir about this whole thing, and in it, he alleged that Harvey actually knew about Jon's plan ahead of time.


Q: What is Harvey's Casino Bombing?

A: Harvey's Casino Bombing was a terrorist attack that occurred on August 26, 1980, when an extortionist planted a bomb at Harvey's Resort Hotel & Casino in Stateline, Nevada.

Q: Who was responsible for the bombing?

A: The bombing was carried out by John Birges Sr., a Hungarian-born American businessman and a former fireworks manufacturer, who had a grudge against Harvey's Casino due to a business dispute.

Q: What was the motive behind the bombing?

A: John Birges Sr. was motivated by financial gain. He had a business dispute with Harvey's Casino, which led to a $3 million settlement. However, Birges was unsatisfied with the settlement and sought revenge by planning the bombing and demanding an additional $3 million.

Q: How was the bombing carried out?

A: Birges built a sophisticated bomb using a combination of dynamite, nitroglycerin, and ammonium nitrate. He then placed the bomb in a metal box and planted it in Harvey's Casino, threatening to detonate it unless his demands were met.

Q: Was anyone injured or killed in the bombing?

A: No one was killed in the bombing, but several people were injured, including casino employees and guests.

Q: What happened to the perpetrator of the bombing?

A: John Birges Sr. was convicted of federal extortion and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died in prison in 1996.

Q: Was Harvey's Casino able to recover from the bombing?

A: Yes, Harvey's Casino was eventually able to recover from the bombing and reopen its doors. However, the incident had a lasting impact on the casino and the surrounding community.

Q: Has there been any media coverage of the Harvey's Casino Bombing?

A: Yes, the bombing has been the subject of several documentaries, books, and TV shows, including an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries."

Rating: 7.5
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