Sunday, February 6, 2011

Las Vegas Hilton Fire Revisited, Minus The Gay Stuff

The lesser-known of the two big Vegas fires - the Las Vegas Hilton fire that killed eight people -- turns 30 today, so the Review-Journal's Brian Haynes sat down with the Philip Cline, who is serving life for the crime.

It's a breezy read and a fascinating piece of Vegas history, but I was surprised that Haynes never addresses directly with Cline the big question: Was he having sex with another man in an 8th floor elevator lobby when the fire ignited from a marijuana cigarette? If not, why'd he say so?

That was one of Cline's earlier stories and, even though his story has changed repeatedly over the years, that's the version that the now-retired homicide investigator still clings to, according to Haynes' report.

That incident was incredibly harmful to gay Las Vegans, who felt scapegoated at the time -- especially when Cline's name was also floated as a possible suspect in the MGM Grand fire that killed 85 that prior November. Cline now tells Haynes that he sparked the fire on his break while smoking a pot cigarette mixed with cocaine and dipped in PCP. It ignited the curtains, he claims. He doesn't say whether there was anybody else there, and Haynes evidently doesn't ask.

If there wasn't, why did Cline say that in his initial confession? Did he really think, back in 1981, that claiming to be having a gay tryst in a public place would engender some sort of sympathy from the cops or a jury? Isn't it more likely, in fact, that the jury might have been even harder on him -- giving him life for eight deaths even though the jury foreman tells Haynes he doesn't believe Cline meant to hurt anyone -- because of the gay element to the matter? That sort of prejudice was pretty common back then.

Meanwhile, on an unrelated note, there is this fascinating tidbit in Haynes' piece about Cline's current life:

He works sorting casino playing cards and repackaging them to be sold to tourists.

Did you know this? Those packs of used playing cards they sell at the gift shops are make-work for Nevada prisoners? Why? The resorts don't have people to do this? Or is this a brilliant little way for the resorts to avoid having to pay someone a proper wage?


Anonymous said...

Yeah, you didn't know they do the cards in prison? I remember hearing that many years ago - and yes, it was designed as a way for the prisoners to make a few bucks (though they get almost nothing per hour).


Anonymous said...

Steve -- I wrote an article for In Business Las Vegas 10 years or so ago that detailed some of the industries that the prisoners handle to make some cash and pass their time.

Along with sorting out used cards, the prison I visited at Indian Springs also had an amazing custom auto shop that created cars similar to what you'd see on "Pimp My Ride" or the like, as well as a stained glass shop that produced a lot of glassworks used in Strip casinos.

I don't believe IBLV was posting content online that early in its existence, which was frustrating to everyone who worked there at the time. Not many people could find that article these days, but it was written many years ago.

- Chris Jones