At 3:46 p.m., on Aug. 27, 1980, a massive explosion disemboweled Harvey’s Wagon Wheel casino, on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The plot to extort owner Harvey Gross of $3 million, and the one-year manhunt to capture the perpetrators, are the meat of Adam Higginbotham’s Kindle Single A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite ($2.99, Atavist). New Yorker contributor Higginbotham has talked to the villains and heroes of the saga, and pored over period documentation to produce a crisp, streamlined narrative.
The mastermind of the Harvey’s bombing was John Birges, a Hungarian émigré who’d made a life for himself in Clovis, California, eventually becoming the owner of a popular restaurant, the Villa Basque. (It burned down under suspicious circumstances.) Birges laid claim to an improbable resume that included being a Hungarian Air Force ace and the survivor of eight years in a Soviet gulag. Once he’d amassed a small fortune, Birges proceeded to blow through it at the gaming tables of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel, fancying himself a high-roller. But the only thing high were his losses, and Birges developed a grudge against Gross.
Birges’ two sons had been whipsawed by their violent-tempered father from an early stage, so it was no great feat to gain their complicity in a plot to shake down Gross by planting a bomb in his hotel. Birges was an inveterate tinkerer, and the bomb was his masterpiece: a giant, gray metal box covered in toggle switches, containing a half-ton of TNT. No fewer than seven triggers could trip the bomb, and there was no way to disarm it. Once it was found, the FBI’s only hope would be to move it off-site and detonate it.
They didn’t get the chance. The day after a botched attempt at a ransom drop, the Bureau decided to sever some of the bomb’s triggers with a shape charge. Unfortunately, the only shape it made was a five-story chasm in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel (no one was hurt), much to the delight of Labor Day rubberneckers. In other casinos, players barely glanced up from the slot machines.
Birges was undeterred by his failure and soon put his mind to an attack either on San Francisco’s Bank of America or upon the resurgent Harvey’s. However, he and his sons had left a wide trail of clues for the FBI, as had two former jailbirds Birges had recruited to deliver the bomb. A boastful man, Birges talked his way right into the slammer, arrested on Aug. 15, 1981, but not ultimately convicted until 1985.
Instrumental in his conviction were his sons who, once arrested, provided testimony that sent their father to prison for life. Birges died while incarcerated at Jean, on August 27, 1996 — 16 years to the day after he blew open Harvey’s Wagon Wheel.
Higginbotham lays this saga out in economical, suspenseful prose that reads like a thriller, effortlessly switching narrative tracks from the plotters to the feds trying to thwart them. If there is a missing presence in the narrative, it is Harvey Gross, who is rarely seen or mentioned. How did he feel about seeing his life’s work go up in a blast of dynamite? Birges, on the other hand, emerges as a larger-than-life-size villain — scheming, domineering, arrogant and fiendishly clever. Higginbotham has not just woven a spellbinding narrative; he’s cast light upon one of the outstanding criminals of Nevada history.