In 1980, Lake Tahoe, Nevada was a popular tourist spot. The area offered skiing, sailing, hiking in the mountains, and of course, gambling on the Nevada side of the lake. It was in this somewhat unlikely place where the authorities found the largest improvised bomb seen to that date in the USA.
Harvey’s casino was opened by former butcher Harvey Gross in 1944. In less than 20 years it grew to a 192 room, 11 story hotel casino. Thousands of people played Harvey’s slot machines and table games. Some were winners, but most were losers. John Birges was one of the latter. Formerly a successful landscaping company owner worth millions, he lost all of it to his gambling addiction.
Born in Hungary in 1922 as János Birges, John grew up in Budapest. When WWII hit, he flew an Me-109 for the Luftwaffe. He was arrested by the Gestapo for disobeying orders during the war, but was released. After the war, he again found himself in hot water – this time with the Russians. He was arrested in 1948 and charged with espionage. His sentence was 25 years of hard labor in the Gulag. The stories vary, but most agree that Birges was able to escape his work camp by detonating a bomb as a diversion.
In 1957 Birges and his wife Elizabeth immigrated to California. He changed his name from János to John to fit in. The couple had two sons, Johnny and Jimmy. John built up a successful landscaping business and bought a restaurant, working his way into the millionaires’ club. From the outside, they were the perfect example of the American dream.
Appearances can be deceiving. Behind closed doors, Birges was a right bastard to his family. He beat his wife and his children, even forcing them to kneel on gravel when they disobeyed him. Eventually, Johnny left home to escape his father’s fists. Elizabeth filed for divorce, and was later found dead under mysterious circumstances. Birges began gambling heavily, especially at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel casino in Lake Tahoe. He eventually burned through his personal savings, as well as the income from his businesses. The once millionaire was now penniless, but he had a plan. Just as a bomb had helped him escape the Gulag, he’d use a bomb to extort his money back from Harvey’s.