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Time bomb

Jim Birges tells a story that sounds like a Hollywood script. It isn't fiction. It's real. But if all goes as planned, the tale will be told on the silver screen.

It is a story about two brothers whose father walked away after their mother died. And yet, for reasons neither of them can explain, they agree to help him build a bomb to extort $3 million from a Lake Tahoe casino. Jim Birges was only a teenager in 1980 when he, his older brother, John Jr., and their father, John Birges of Clovis, put the plan into motion.

Their father was an unlucky gambler. Most of the money Birges made through his Clovis landscaping business he lost in a half-decade losing streak at the end of the 1970s that left him hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to Harveys Resort Hotel.

"Our father decided to place a bomb in the casino. He would tell them how to safely move it once they paid the money," Jim Birges recalls.

The scheme came to an explosive end in August 1980. How it came to be is the stuff of movie dreams.

The players

Hungary native John Birges flew in the German Luftwaffe during World War II. He was captured and, like many prisoners of the Russians, was sentenced to 25 years in a gulag. Jim Birges says his father escaped from the prison in 1954, nine years into his sentence, by using a bomb.

John Birges and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in Hungary until they came to the United States in 1957 and moved to Clovis in 1969.

Birges started a landscaping business that grew to be one of the biggest in the western United States. It is hard to travel around Fresno without trodding across land that at one time Birges tended: Woodward Park, the Federal Building, Palm Lakes golf course, Fresno High School, Clovis High School and most of Highway 99.

Tragedy hit the family in 1975. Jim Birges says his father became an emotional wreck when his wife committed suicide that year. Jim Birges was only 12.

Oldest son John Birges Jr. left home shortly afterward. He was 16. Since then, he has banged around the state, working a variety of jobs, including construction work. Today, he designs and builds surfboards in Santa Barbara.

Jim Birges, the youngest son, was a high school athlete and motorcycle enthusiast in the 1970s. Life was tough for the Clovis High School grad after his mother's death.

"My father was gone all the time after that. He lived in Tahoe, was playing blackjack and losing all his money," Jim Birges says. "I had to get myself up and get to school."

They weren't exactly a Norman Rockwell family. But the father's bomb project did bring them back together -- at least for a time.

The plan

Nothing prepared Jim Birges for the news his father dropped on him in the summer of 1980.

"When my father said he was going to build a bomb, I never thought he could get the dynamite. So we agreed to go along with the plan," says Jim Birges, who recounts the story with the practiced air of a man who has told this story countless times to authorities.

They did get the dynamite. They stole 2,000 pounds of explosives from a construction site for a hydroelectric project in Shaver Lake.

Without flinching at the memory of living in a world where a barbecue grill and a mound of 2,000 pounds of dynamite shared the same green space, Jim Birges recalls how they built a bomb in the backyard of their Clovis home.

That was only the first step, however.

"Our dad wanted us to deliver the dynamite to the casino. That's when we said we were done," he says. Part of the nerve to make such a stand against their father came when, during a practice run by the brothers to load the dynamite into the van, the rope broke and the bomb rolled over the fingers of John Birges Jr.

That should have brought the plan to an end. The brothers didn't count on their father being so determined about his decision to bomb the casino. Their father paid a couple of ex-cons to make the delivery.

At 4 a.m. Aug. 26, a dirty white van pulled up to the front doors of Harveys Resort Hotel. Accounts of the event reveal Terry Hall and Bill Brown proceeded to push the 2,000 pounds of dynamite through the front door into the casino lobby. They were dressed in coveralls to look like delivery men.

The master plan had the bomb covered with a dirty gray tarp with the letters IBM handwritten on it. The security guards helped the two hired hands push the bomb into the elevator that would take the bomb to the second floor. The bomb, about the size of a soda machine, barely fit.

They left the bomb in a room near the casino's computers. Its trigger, made from an irrigation timer, was already set. A letter with the homemade bomb spelled out the bombers' demands: The casino owners had seven days to pay the $3 million. Only then would they be given the details of how to safely move the bomb out of the casino.

On reading the note, authorities quickly evacuated the casino, along with surrounding businesses.

The reason

Why would the two brothers, neither of whom had ever been in trouble, take part in such a scheme?

"That's the million-dollar question," says Jim Birges. "You would have to go back to our childhood."

Jim Birges' face loses some of its color as he talks about the physical and emotional abuse he and his brother faced.

"We never thought it would happen," Jim Birges says. "But as to your question of why did we go along with the plan, I can't explain it."

His brother is equally at a loss.

"I thought about it a million times," says John Birges Jr. "Maybe it was conditioning. Maybe it was a control factor. At the time, I was a born-again Christian. The Bible says honor thy father. I just don't know."

Whether it was a desperate attempt to earn the love of their father, a cry for attention or just a bad decision, neither brother has an answer for why they kept helping their father.

John Birges Jr. initially is reluctant to talk about the event. He wants to first talk with Nick Casavettes, the director who could be the one to finally turn the brothers' story into a movie. Casavettes has made a name for himself in independent-film circles and is the son of the late film director and actor John Casavettes.

John Birges Jr. admits he has concerns about the project.

"I want the film to be as true as possible," he says. "They finally assured me it would be."

The mistakes

The extorted money was to be dropped from a helicopter at a designated spot. But the helicopter pilot, an FBI agent, flew in the wrong direction. No drop was made.

Under pressure from the casino and surrounding businesses, all losing money while their doors were shut, the FBI moved ahead with plans to defuse the device using a robot. The FBI accidentally detonated the bomb before a second ransom drop could be attempted.

No one was hurt, but the blast did $13 million in damage.

The key bit of evidence that lead to the Birges clan as the chief suspects came from a motel clerk. John Birges and his hired minions stayed at a cheap motel a few miles away from Harveys the night before the bomb was delivered. The clerk thought the trio looked a little suspicious. He wrote down the license plate of the van used to deliver the bomb.

And authorities noticed that one son, Jim Birges, got a speeding ticket not far from the designated drop zone the day after the $3 million was to be delivered. The clues began to add up. The FBI interrogated the brothers while building a case against their father.

The Birges family was arrested almost a year after the explosion. The case went to court when the brothers agreed to testify against their father. They got probation.

Their dad was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. He died in prison in 1996 of liver cancer at 74.

The movie deal

For all his ambivalence about the movie, John Jr. first had the idea.

He was fixing the roof at Pelagius Films of Los Angeles in 2000 and used that opportunity to pitch his story.

Joe Fries, a producer with Pelagius Films, said the company loved the idea and bought the rights. But it started shopping the story in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bombing stories were not a popular topic in Hollywood at that time.

"It was a great story," Fries says. "But no one wanted to hear about bombs in buildings."

Fast forward to 2006, when Jim Birges met local promoter Rick Mirigian in a pickup basketball game in Fresno. Mirigian took the idea to Firm Films of Los Angeles, which got in touch with Pelagius, and soon the movie was back on track.

No one will say exactly what the brothers are getting out of the deal, though it isn't the $3 million their father tried to get out of the casino.

Everyone involved seems happy about the likelihood of a movie. The brothers could never come up with a good answer as to why they agreed to help their father. Maybe they will have better luck explaining why they now are willing to talk about such a dramatic event in their lives.

Jim Birges is ready for the question. He's probably asked himself that question plenty of times since he listened to Mirigian's pitch.

"It is something I would have rather not seen told," Jim Birges confesses. He never makes clear whether it is his family, Fresno business or just bad memories for why he would have preferred the story just go away. But the story had already returned to the national spotlight with the 25th anniversary. The attention even included an A&E cable special.

Jim Birges finally justifies being part of the new attention to the event: "The passage of time, the sophistication of the bomb, the fact no one got hurt and that it hurt a casino makes it easier to talk about it now."

John Birges Jr. offers a real simple reason that he is willing for his life to be displayed.

"It is what happened. Whether it is told now or 100 years from now, the story will always be that three hicks from Clovis were able to out-think the experts," he says.

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