"I don’t think it belongs here."
June 17, 2015 1:33 PM   Subscribe

"In other words this bomb is so sensitive that the slightest movement either inside or outside will cause it to explode." In 1980, a bomb was smuggled into Harvey's Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe. In an attempt to defuse it, it exploded and severely damaged the hotel. It was the largest domestic bomb to be detonated in the US until the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. And yet, no-one was killed.

The FBI continues to use the model of the bomb built for the trial for training.
posted by mkb (60 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
What an interesting piece of... well... bomb history I suppose. The engineer in me wants to know more, if only because of the tolerance and Ricter scale warnings.

I found the following bit surprising, to say the least, but then again this seems about as white-collar as you can get for this sort of thing.

His two sons, charged as accomplices, were given suspended sentences because they cooperated with authorities.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:42 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the total damages exceeded the ransom.
I wonder what the casino's insurance covered versus what it wouldn't have covered.
I wonder what this did to Casino insurance rates overall.
posted by clarknova at 1:50 PM on June 17, 2015


There was a nice thread on this previously, though I think the links are all down.
posted by exogenous at 1:51 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ah, the other link has more construction details at the end, I [wrongly] assumed that the FBI would have held the internal details closer to their vest.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:56 PM on June 17, 2015


I wonder who built the model.
I wonder how much that cost.
I wonder if the future uses of the model were part of that consideration.
I wonder out of which fund that cost was paid.
I wonder how much of it was actually necessary in the sucessful prosecution of the case.

Yeah, exogenous. That's a shame too. The RGJ story in nine parts might have answered some of these questions that burn in my procrastinating brain.
posted by clarknova at 1:58 PM on June 17, 2015


A more recent FPP on this. Slate ran an excerpt of the longer article.
posted by ogooglebar at 1:59 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


My favorite part of the article: curious onlookers looked on
posted by Ratio at 2:09 PM on June 17, 2015 [15 favorites]


I wonder if the total damages exceeded the ransom.

The ransom was $3M. I have talked to people in the vault in TINY casinos that claim they bring in $10M during a single (holiday) day. This was days of yore, but seriously, a casino closing for a week is BIG TIME problem. I bet it took a year to rebuild.

I wonder what the casino's insurance covered versus what it wouldn't have covered.

I bet as soon as they got the bomb threat, they got their in-house lawyers to talk to the insurance people. And the casino probably did everything the insurance people told them to do.

But still, its not about the damage to the building, its the fact that 'The Mint had to close down for X amount of time.' Physical damages are NOTHING here. Unlike most businesses, the worth of a casino is not in its real property, but what you can do on that property. And if that real property is somehow damaged, then that sucks because you are now down half a million dollars per day.

I wonder what this did to Casino insurance rates overall.

Probably nothing. Because who cares? The casino is our client!
posted by hal_c_on at 2:11 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow, that's so crazy.

It seems to me that bomb threats are all pretty much doomed to fail because the FBI will, generally, simply evacuate the area and let the thing blow up. I'm sure the casino owner was pretty upset but in the scheme of things that particular building didn't have any really unique value and I think the feds would rather keep the precedent of not paying extortionists.

A surprise bomb attack works great for terrorists but it pretty useless for extortion.

And the workmanship on this thing... it really is like an action movie bomb. I wonder if it had mercury switches for the motion triggers. You'd think this guy could find something better to do with his time given his ability to build this thing.
posted by GuyZero at 2:11 PM on June 17, 2015


Also from the longer article...

Back in Lake Tahoe, FBI agents and members of the bomb squad strapped on air filtration masks and protective gear and crossed the field of glass fragments to enter the wounded casino tower. It looked as if a bomb had gone off.

Really, Alan Bellows? Really? We all see what you did there.
posted by GuyZero at 2:13 PM on June 17, 2015 [20 favorites]


My favorite part of the article: curious onlookers looked on

My favorite was, "It looked as if a bomb had gone off."
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:14 PM on June 17, 2015 [11 favorites]


Damn it, GuyZero!
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:14 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


What does "domestic" mean in this instance? Did they mean to say "non-military", or do they really mean "domestic" as opposed to "foreign"?
posted by clawsoon at 2:15 PM on June 17, 2015


I wonder if it had mercury switches for the motion triggers.

This is what I get for pasting halfway through the article. It was a pendulum in a narrow metal tube. Technically impressive. Batshit insane.
posted by GuyZero at 2:16 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


What does "domestic" mean in this instance?

Maybe it's just redundant?
posted by GuyZero at 2:18 PM on June 17, 2015


curious onlookers looked on

But how did they look on, that's what I want to know.
posted by The Tensor at 2:23 PM on June 17, 2015 [18 favorites]


Never heard about this. Amazing story. Thanks.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 2:23 PM on June 17, 2015


A more recent FPP on this. Slate ran an excerpt of the longer article.

Awww!! I was still reading the article from that earlier post and the "before the fold" description on this post is a total spoiler!
posted by vitabellosi at 2:24 PM on June 17, 2015


Quite a story, but it sure needed an editor. Bellows thinks he's a much cleverer writer than he actually is, and I kept wincing as I read:

They needed to decide how to salt this slug.
They could just pay the extortion money—the upcoming weekend was Labor Day, and business would be booming if the bomb had not.
...the relationship barely lasted a single lap around the sun.
...his colleagues would later say there were tears in his eyes as he looked upon the bedraggled building.
In the casino pit the tables had turned.
This time the precision shaped charge worked: John and Jimmy left no bean unspilled.


Jesus, pal, just tell the damn story. No need to salt the slug.
posted by languagehat at 2:30 PM on June 17, 2015 [32 favorites]


I was so happy to see another Damn Interesting episode in my podcast feed. This one was really good. It seems like the extortionist and cohorts did everything in their power to get caught, which contrasts with the careful way the device was crafted.
posted by double block and bleed at 2:33 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


thanks, hal_c-on. That was some satisfying inside scoop.
posted by clarknova at 2:36 PM on June 17, 2015


Kudos to the author for appropriate use of the term "vomitoria".
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:47 PM on June 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


[Purple prose ... ]
Jesus, pal, just tell the damn story. No need to salt the slug.
posted by languagehat at 5:30 PM on June 17 [1 favorite +] [!]


Readers chortled and tipped their hats at the confluence of username and comment topic.
posted by aureliobuendia at 2:53 PM on June 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Where can I get one of those "I got bombed in Tahoe" shirts?
posted by gucci mane at 2:53 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


My favorite bit was "a machine with mysterious inner workings had once been placed in the casino to separate a man from his money."
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 3:10 PM on June 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


Just read the article and pretending it's an Ultron/Raymond Reddington monologue

Works much better that way
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:13 PM on June 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


It was the largest domestic bomb to be detonated in the US…
Are they even familiar with Tom Green’s work?

FBI Special Agents Yablonski, Hawkins, and Jonkey...convened with Harvey Gross in the command center
Meh. They're better live in concert.

“Rumor had it that some local casinos were taking bets regarding whether and when the device would explode.”

Vegas Baby - Yeah!
(well, except, Tahoe but - Yeah!)

“When asked why so few people these days seem to remember the events that unfolded in Lake Tahoe on 26-27 August 1980, Jonkey’s speculation is succinct: "Nobody died."”

Well, George Metesky isn’t a household name. OTOH if ‘Good Will Hunting’ is a good snapshot, most people know the Unibomber.
Maybe if the guy looks like the Metesky or Birges’ and lives down the block instead of a mad-eyed wild haired maniac in a shack somewhere, or ethnic of course, people are less interested. *shrug*
posted by Smedleyman at 3:25 PM on June 17, 2015


curious onlookers looked on

But how did they look on, that's what I want to know.


If I don't miss my mark.... curiously?
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 3:40 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Really interesting story. But the writing was... unusual. I guess Bellows was having fun with the story.
posted by Splunge at 3:47 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Aside-that-shows-my-age: God I miss the old, kitschy, 1970's/80's-era wide-spot-in-the-road-with-slots-and-keno South Lake Tahoe. It was homey, it didn't take itself so seriously, and it was fun for kids as well as adults. We spent one week there every summer for most of my youth: stayed in a cheap motel on US Hwy 50 a mile or so west of Stateline, ate burgers and pizza for dinner (not at the same time), swam in the motel pool or the cooooold waters of the lake itself, played pinball, watched my dad nap by the pool, and saw second run movies at the drive-in or the Bijou Cinema. And in the evenings, my folks would tell me to watch my siblings while they went to Harrah's or Harvey's to play nickel slots. It was sleepy, it was unpretentious, and it wasn't overly crowded. And yes, my memories are probably sepia-tinged and y'all should get off of my lawn while I yell at this cloud...

The current "we're a World Class destination resort so take us seriously and bring sacks of money when you visit" South Lake Tahoe is just depressing and holds no joy for me. And I say that as someone who really does love the Tahoe area and all of its history, natural beauty, and potential for indoor and outdoor fun. We still visit Tahoe from time to time with our kids, but most of our time is spent driving through or around it to the valleys and forests that surround the lake. I don't know that anything could have been done to "save" Tahoe from its own success, but nonetheless I lament its current sprawl and pretension.
posted by mosk at 4:11 PM on June 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


Half a ton of dynamite with a few sticks of dynamite in the "head" as a tamper resisting measure? I mean, wow. That just makes me think "yo, dog, we heard to like dynamite, so we are using dynamite to set off your dynamite."

Boom.
posted by daq at 4:14 PM on June 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is also the first story featured on the new Atavist Magazine Podcast. I read the Atavist article when it came out, but it is a really great narrative for a podcast!
posted by montag2k at 4:31 PM on June 17, 2015


I blame the dynamite/TNT confusion on AC/DC: "I'm TNT/I'm dynamite."
posted by kirkaracha at 4:51 PM on June 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


A good friend of mine has a working Harvey's Casino slot machine in his living room. I have spent many hours putting nickels into that machine.
posted by ga$money at 5:05 PM on June 17, 2015


Yes, yes. The writing is just a wee bit too much. But, I lol'd anyways.

The van was unmarked apart from a small adhesive reading, "Do not disturb the occupants of this vehicle when it is rocking," or something to that effect.

lol
posted by mhum at 5:34 PM on June 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


A double?! I only searched for the casino name, augh!
posted by mkb at 5:45 PM on June 17, 2015


I frequent Harvey's. Had no idea this happened, I was in elementary school at the time...

Lots going on. The writing was campy, yet riveting...the story is just the kind of crazy you can't make up...truth is stranger than fiction. Fresno, however, appears to have stayed the same over time.
posted by Chuffy at 5:49 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah y'all lighten up on the writing - Bellows recognized a great opportunity to get silly with a bombing of all things, and I think he knocked it out of the park.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:50 PM on June 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


languagehat: Jesus, pal, just tell the damn story. No need to salt the slug.

I reserve the right to write sillily, but I'm sorry that you found the wordplay off-putting, as that is the least delicious flavor of pudding.

That joke worked better in my imagination. I'm not as clever as I thought.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 5:55 PM on June 17, 2015 [13 favorites]


Reminds me strongly of the 1974 film Juggernaut. I have to wonder if "Big John" ever saw it.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:04 PM on June 17, 2015


clawsoon: What does "domestic" mean in this instance?

GuyZero: Maybe it's just redundant?


Nope, because the US military has definitely exploded larger bombs in the US.
posted by clawsoon at 6:18 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


How interesting that a man who was trained by the OSS/CIA as an overseas operative later managed to construct an elaborate explosive device that demonstrated intimate knowledge of how such things are commonly attacked and didn't manage to kill himself in the process. I'm sure these facts are probably unrelated.
posted by indubitable at 6:53 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


The mockup they built for the trial remains in use today as a training device in the FBI Laboratory Division.

As the basis of their Kobayashi Maru exercise, I suppose.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:55 PM on June 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


I like how the casino owner refused to pay the ransom. That takes guts but it protects everyone from future threats. It was not in his short term interests to have his casino blown up, but it was in his long term interests to discourage extortionists.

It's also nice that no one was hurt and the bomber went to prison. Everyone in the story did the right thing, except the criminals, and they paid for it. Very satisfying.
posted by foobaz at 6:56 PM on June 17, 2015


I loved this, Hot Pastrami!
posted by latkes at 7:24 PM on June 17, 2015


A great story to read, however purplely-prosed. Nice post.
posted by univac at 8:13 PM on June 17, 2015


Interestingly, some of the details differ between this article and one of the previouslies. The one that really stuck out to me was that this one states that the shaped charge failed to disarm the bomb because there was dynamite in the top compartment, while the earlier writeup states that it triggered the tilt switch. I suppose both are speculation, but you'd think that talking to the same people would elicit the same speculation.
posted by wierdo at 8:40 PM on June 17, 2015


I'm annoyed that the two dudes who were paid to wheel it into the place got way more time than either his kids or his girlfriend. Those two said that they didn't even know it was a bomb and all they really did was leave some weird box in a room in a casino, which I guess is probably a crime, but seven years? How is that worse than directly collaborating with the bomber with full knowledge of what the plan is?
posted by neonrev at 9:03 PM on June 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Those two said that they didn't even know it was a bomb and all they really did was leave some weird box in a room in a casino

At the time, okay, but the news coverage soon made it clear what they’d done.

Why didn’t they step forward? I intend that as a serious question, not a rhetorical one.
posted by Fongotskilernie at 9:24 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


neonrev: I'm annoyed that the two dudes who were paid to wheel it into the place got way more time than either his kids or his girlfriend. Those two said that they didn't even know it was a bomb and all they really did was leave some weird box in a room in a casino, which I guess is probably a crime, but seven years? How is that worse than directly collaborating with the bomber with full knowledge of what the plan is?

It's possible that they were lying about not knowing it was a bomb, and it came out at trial. Maybe they had some sort of deal to share the ransom or something.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:37 PM on June 17, 2015


"The curious onlookers looked on with interest, an inquisitive audience of people wanting to know more."

There's your baseline.
posted by um at 10:07 PM on June 17, 2015


this one states that the shaped charge failed to disarm the bomb because there was dynamite in the top compartment, while the earlier writeup states that it triggered the tilt switch

Close! What this one actually says is "it is not clear whether it was the loose dynamite or the tilt sensor that triggered the main explosion."
posted by Shmuel510 at 10:14 PM on June 17, 2015


I'm sort of amazed no one has done anything like this yet but with the demand being to transfer bitcoins, or something to that effect where the money would just go in to a black hole. especially during defcon.

Is there just way too much security and monitoring now?
posted by emptythought at 10:38 PM on June 17, 2015


I'm sort of amazed no one has done anything like this yet but with the demand being to transfer bitcoins, or something to that effect where the money would just go in to a black hole. especially during defcon.

Is there just way too much security and monitoring now?


Isn't the purchase of explosives and anything that can be used to make them (e.g. fertilizer) monitored pretty closely now? That by itself would make things difficult. And then all the security cameras everywhere...

...so basically I'm saying yes, that's probably it.
posted by clawsoon at 11:01 PM on June 17, 2015


Bellows thinks he's a much cleverer writer than he actually is, and I kept wincing as I read:

I love the style. It's goofy and playful and deliberately contrived. If it was a high volume publication it'd be silly, but for a labour of love that publishes an article every 6 weeks or so...
posted by ambrosen at 12:07 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


My immediate reaction was that someone had seen Juggernaut. Set on board a ship, not in a casino, but still.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:50 AM on June 18, 2015


Nice article and a fascinating story I was unaware of.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:17 AM on June 18, 2015


Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb.
posted by dr_dank at 4:19 AM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Isn't the purchase of explosives and anything that can be used to make them (e.g. fertilizer) monitored pretty closely now? That by itself would make things difficult.

Per the article, the explosives were acquired through extra-legal means. Specifically, breaking into a shed at a dam construction site.
posted by aureliobuendia at 7:15 AM on June 18, 2015


Those two said that they didn't even know it was a bomb and all they really did was leave some weird box in a room in a casino

At the time, okay, but the news coverage soon made it clear what they’d done.

Why didn’t they step forward? I intend that as a serious question, not a rhetorical one.


I would have to assume it was just simple fear. They would be admitting to being the people who put that bomb there, and they'd just have to hope the police would believe them when they said they didn't build it or know it was a bomb, and it was already a big deal federal case. No one was killed, so they didn't have that to create any guilt. I can see why they wouldn't say anything, especially since they probably liked the guy anyway since they did such a weird job for him randomly.

I just don't see how what they did was worse than what the girlfriend, who was also former law enforcement, did. She knew completely what the plan was and was instrumental in the escape plan, and stood to directly profit from a ransom. Those two dudes probably got $100 for a couple hours work and went on their way.
posted by neonrev at 1:24 PM on June 21, 2015


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