61°F
weather icon Overcast

Killer says deadly Hilton blaze in 1981 ‘wasn’t meant to hurt anybody’

Philip Cline tries not to think of that day 30 years ago. The sky was ablaze. Hundreds were hurt. Eight people were dead. He was to blame.

As he watched the Las Vegas Hilton burn the night of Feb. 10, 1981, the 23-year-old figured he had it coming.

He had stolen cars. He had stolen money. He was probably headed to prison one way or another.

But he never wanted to hurt anyone, and he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer.

That’s what still bothers him three decades later.

During a recent interview in a drab cinder-block meeting room at High Desert State Prison, where Cline is serving eight consecutive life terms, he emphasized how sorry he was for what happened and insisted he never intended to hurt anyone.

"A lot of people, I think they think I did it on purpose, and it wasn’t done on purpose," he said. "I did it. I’m responsible for it. I admit it. I did it. But it wasn’t meant to hurt anybody or kill anybody. That’s the one thing I want to get across."

But for many, Cline’s words ring hollow.

Retired Las Vegas police homicide Detective Chuck Lee, who got Cline’s confession during a polygraph test, always believed Cline intentionally set the deadly fire, perhaps as part of a homosexual encounter in that eighth-floor elevator lobby.

Yet even if Cline’s new story is taken at face value, the dangerous nature of his act speaks for itself.

"He set the fire. Only he knows his intentions," Lee said. "You set a fire in a crowded hotel … what do you expect?"

Petty crimes preceded fire

The son of a career Air Force veteran, Cline left his Bay Area home about 1980 and moved to Las Vegas, a glittering town he had once run away to as a young teen.

The former altar boy was hardly an angel, committing petty crimes as often as he changed jobs.

He bounced around casinos, including the El Cortez and MGM Grand, before becoming a $39-a-day busboy at the Hilton about six weeks before the fire.

By then his growing rap sheet included charges of possessing stolen property, possessing burglary tools and embezzlement. That last charge involved the theft of $100 while he worked at the El Cortez, a crime he pleaded guilty to less than two weeks before the fire.

On the night of the fire, Cline was working as a busboy in the hotel’s east tower.

Now 53 and balding, Cline revealed he never had been completely honest about what happened that night. He never told his family, and he never told his lawyers.

But now, he wants everyone to know the truth.

Cline said he was on his break when he sat on the couch in the elevator lobby to smoke a marijuana cigarette mixed with cocaine and dipped in PCP that his roommate had given him.

Cline’s roommate had warned him not to smoke it all at once — advice he ignored.

"Why did I mess with that stuff that I shouldn’t have?" he said. "Messing with the drugs. I couldn’t handle it. I was weak-minded."

Then, "for no reason, I just, I had his lighter, and I lit the curtains on fire," he said.

The flames grew fast, climbing the curtains and igniting the couch.

Cline said he called the hotel operator to report the fire. He remembered a security guard stopping by with a fire extinguisher that didn’t work.

The guard left to find another one, and the flames kept growing. Cline banged on room doors to warn guests before heading downstairs to his work area.

"The smoke on the ceiling started getting darker and darker and lower and lower,” he said. "I got scared."

He joined other workers in the employee parking lot and watched the brilliant flames climbing the side of the building, then the largest hotel in the world with 2,783 rooms.

Panic set in as flames climbed into the night sky, rekindling memories of the deadly MGM Grand hotel fire less than three months earlier.

Shortly after 8 p.m., firetrucks surrounded the burning hotel. Guests broke windows and cried for help. Bedsheets tied into makeshift ropes hung from windows. Helicopters plucked people from the rooftop.

Inside, hotel workers told people to stay in their rooms with towels under the doors as the hallways filled with black smoke.

Seven people died from smoke inhalation, three of them in the eighth-floor elevator lobby where the blaze began. Another victim, Bruce Glenn, 47, of Plymouth, Minn., fell or jumped to his death from a 16th-floor window.

Also killed in the fire were Dennis McFarland, 32, Boone, Iowa; Frank Greenfield, 22, West Bloomfield, Mich.; Robert Leach, 54, Honolulu; Harry Gaines, 69, and his wife, Lorraine Gaines, 67, Los Angeles; Zeny Carvalho, 64, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Jack Turinsky, 41, Anchorage, Alaska.

About 200 others were injured in the blaze.

As he watched the horror unfold, Cline thought to himself that he had it coming.

"I was thinking, you know, all the stuff I had done prior — stealing cars, stealing money — was all coming back on me. When you do bad stuff, karma comes back on you. You don’t get away with nothing, you know. It just comes back and gets you."

Cline filled out three written statements that night, one for the hotel, one for fire investigators and one for police. It was the last one that made him a suspect.

In all of the statements, he wrote how he had discovered the fire, called the operator and banged on doors. He also wrote that he had grabbed a wastebasket and filled it with water in an attempt to quell the flames.

But in his statement to police, he made what authorities considered a Freudian slip.

"I grabbed a trash can and filled it up with fire, and I put the couch out & then I went to get some more fire (the word was crossed out) water to put the curtain out," the statement read.

Homicide detectives questioned him the next day.

Woman’s testimony sealed fate

After a polygraph test, Lee knew Cline wasn’t being completely honest.

The veteran homicide detective called his bluff, and Cline broke down: He said he was on the couch having sex with a man named Joe. They were smoking a marijuana cigarette that accidentally caught the curtains on fire.

"I never believed it was an accident," Lee said.

Investigators tried to replicate the cigarette igniting the curtains and couldn’t. They couldn’t find the mystery man called Joe.

Some believed Cline set the fire so he could look like a hero. Others believed he was a serial arsonist who had set other fires in the Hilton that night and was responsible for recent fires in other hotels, including the MGM Grand fire that killed 87.

Cline said he had nothing to do with any of those other fires, and he insisted what happened at the Hilton was never meant to harm.

So why not tell detectives the truth?

"I didn’t want to face the truth. I didn’t want to tell people that I was responsible for doing that. I was scared," he said. "I thought if they didn’t know the truth, I’d be all right, if that makes any sense."

Prosecutors charged Cline with arson and eight counts of first-degree murder.

The jury endured a seven-week trial that included plenty of tedious technical testimony about the fire, flames and arson. But it was the testimony of a red-haired woman early in the trial that sealed Cline’s fate, two jurors recalled.

David Kelley, the then-36-year-old jury foreman, said he awoke from a dead sleep one night when the case crystallized in his mind.

The woman had testified about walking down the hall to get ice and passing a man on a hotel phone reporting a fire. But she saw no sign of fire until after she returned to her room with the ice, said Kelley, who had watched the flames crawl up the Hilton while he was working at McCarran International Airport.

"He called it in and then started the fire," he said. "He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. He was trying to be a hero."

Kathy Zeller, then a 32-year-old accountant, said the woman’s testimony was key in convicting Cline.

"He probably was looking for a little stardom," Zeller said. "He got it, but not in the right way."

Hilton paid $16.5 million

Prosecutors pushed for the death penalty.

Cline’s lawyer, Kevin Kelly, argued that the hotel should share most of the blame for the deaths because of its failure to maintain basic fire safety devices such as fire alarms and sprinklers.

"To say now that Philip Bruce Cline knowingly created the risk of death to more than one person is to blind oneself to the negligence displayed by the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel," Kelly wrote in court papers.

The Hilton would eventually pay $16.5 million of a $22.8 million settlement to end a federal court lawsuit filed by fire victims naming the hotel and various companies responsible for its construction and furnishings.

Jurors in the criminal case weren’t swayed by Kelly’s argument about the hotel being responsible, because the building was up to the current fire codes, the jury foreman said.

When it came to deciding Cline’s fate, the jury settled into a debate over whether he deserved to be a free man again, he said.

"We couldn’t go with the death penalty, because we didn’t think he did anything to hurt anybody," Kelley said. "But we gave him no parole because after MGM he should have known how disastrous hotel fires could be."

The jury spared Cline’s life, but in giving him eight consecutive prison sentences of life without parole, it all but assured he would die behind bars.

"He’s in the place he needs to be," said Zeller, who now works in the Hilton accounting department.

Kelly said his former client had many issues to raise on appeal, including his lack of a lawyer when he gave his confession, but for some reason Cline was never given an attorney to file an appeal.

Kelly said Cline deserves a chance at freedom, but he doubted the governor, attorney general and state Supreme Court justices who comprise the Pardons Board would ever release someone convicted of killing eight people in a Las Vegas hotel fire.

His former client never helped himself, either.

"Philip Cline was his own worst enemy. There were a number of things he said before and after the trial that just didn’t make sense," Kelly said. "He just couldn’t tell the same story twice."

Yet Cline said he still hopes the Pardons Board will give him a chance at freedom.

"I don’t think I deserve to die in here, but I did what I did. I’m responsible for that," he said.

During his nearly three decades in prison, Cline has gotten his high school diploma and has kept busy, avoiding the torment of reliving that night in his mind. He works sorting casino playing cards and repackaging them to be sold to tourists.

He has considered reaching out to the victims’ relatives. Once he asked a friend to find their addresses, but the friend talked him out of it.

Even now he struggles to find the words he would say to the families he changed forever.

"It bothers … me, just knowing that I can’t undo what I did," Cline said. "I can’t bring back them eight people. And that’s what messes with me the most, is I can’t undo what I did and bring them eight people back to their families. … There’s nothing I can say or do that will bring them back."

After the emotional interview, the prison guards looked at each other and made a note to put Cline on suicide watch the rest of the day, and again on Thursday — the anniversary of the fire.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Crime Videos
CCSD police on the arrest of Deamonte Warren - VIDEO
CCSD police arrested Chaparral High School custodian Deamonte Warren on Friday on three counts of a school employee having sex with a student and an additional count of providing alcohol to a minor. (Courtesy CCSD Police)
Woman charged with sex trafficking an 11-year-old girl on the Strip (Michael Quine)
Gigi Mitchell faces seven felony charges including sex trafficking and child abuse for bringing an 11-year-old girl to the Las Vegas Strip to work as a prostitute.
Bel Air Drive Officer Involved Shooting Presser - Video
LVMPD Assistant Sheriff Tim Kelly goes over the officer-involved shooting on Bel Air Drive.
Former Las Vegas police officer get 25 life sentences for sexually abusing child
Former Las Vegas Police officer Bret Theil was sentences to 25 consecutive life sentences at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, May 15, 2019, for sexually abusing a child over a decade. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Man pushed off bus in Las Vegas - VIDEO
Las Vegas police arrested 25-year-old Cadesha Bishop on May 6, after she allegedly pushed Serge Fournier, 74, off of a parked bus near Fremont Street and 13th Street about 4:50 p.m. March 21.(Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
$1 million bail set for mother charged with drowning 2-year-old daughter
The 44-year-old mother who police say drowned her 2-year-old daughter in a bathtub in a northeast Las Vegas apartment on Saturday made her first court appearance on Tuesday, May 14th.
Officer arrested on suspicion of lewdness with a child appears in court
Matthew James Terry, a Las Vegas police officer arrested on suspicion of lewdness with a child, appears in court Monday morning, May 13, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police seek hit-and-run driver
A motorcycle officer pulled over a Mercedes SUV, and after the officer came to a stop, it shifted into reverse, intentionally hitting the officer.
Thedrick Andres becomes Henderson Police Department acting chief
Henderson Police Department Acting Chief Thedrick Andres speaks about his goals in his new position at the Henderson Police headquarters, Monday, April 29, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
2 dead, 1 wounded after east valley neighborhood shooting
One man and one woman are dead and another man wounded after a shooting Thursday afternoon in an east valley neighborhood.
Bail denied for former police detective charged with murder
Bail was denied Tuesday for former Metropolitan Police Department detective, Pamela Rene Bordeaux who is accused of fatally shooting her daughter’s ex-husband during supervised visitation with his child.
Third suspect in death of California doctor appears in court
The third and final suspect in the killing of a California doctor, Jon Kennison, 27, appears in court Friday, April 19, 2019. Kennison, Kelsey Nichole Turner, a former model, and Diana Pena, face charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Richard Cleaves of Pahrump arrested in burglary on former Binion property
Updated press release regarding burglary on a former Binion property: Richard Cleaves, 56 of Pahrump, has been arrested on a warrant for burglary, conspiracy to commit grand larceny, and destruction of property. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Judge denies bail for suspect charged in the killing of California doctor
Diana Pena, one of three people charged in the killing of a California doctor, is being held without bail after her fingerprints were found on the car where Dr. Thomas Burchard's body was discovered.
Ex-NFL player and girlfriend held without bail in child’s death
Former professional football player Cierre Wood and his girlfriend, Amy Taylor, face charges of murder and child abuse in the death of Taylor's 5-year-old daughter. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP identifies man who was shot by trooper on Mount Charleston
Nevada Highway Patrol updates the media on the April 2, 2019 officer involved shooting on Mount Charleston. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas court grants '90 Day Fiancé' defendant continuance
"90 Day Fiance" stars Colt Johnson and his mother Debra left the Las Vegas Justice Center Thursday, after the court granted Larissa dos Santos Lima a continuance in her misdemeanor case, in which she is accused of domestic violence against Colt. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Details released on in-custody death
Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank addresses media about details of an in-custody death at Clark County Detention Center on March 31. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Man hurt in shooting with Nevada troopers at Mount Charleston
A man was injured in a shooting involving Nevada Highway Patrol troopers Tuesday afternoon at Mount Charleston on state Route 157 near Echo Trail. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officer wounds inmate during escape attempt
An officer fired on an inmate who stole a vehicle and tried to flee, ramming several cars and leading officers on a chase until he ran out of gas.
Man fatally shot during a 'beer skip'
A store clerk is being questioned after a man was fatally shot during a robbery at a gas station Friday. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Las Vegas police give details on fatal shooting
Metro homicide Lt. Ray Spencer gives a briefing on a fatal shooting near downtown Las Vegas that occurred on March 27, 2019. (Katelyn Newberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas community pays tribute to boy killed by car
The community joined friends and family at Wilbur & Theresa Faiss Park, Wednesday evening, to remember the boy who was struck and killed by a car crossing South Fort Apache Road from Faiss Park, near West Maule Avenue, on Monday. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Person of Interest Found For Downtown Las Vegas Bar - Video
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is seeking help to find a person of interest in a potential homicide case at a bar in downtown Las Vegas.
Metro briefs media on OIS near downtown Las Vegas
Police address media about officer-involved shooting that started on Maryland and Vegas Valley, and concluded downtown, near the Golden Nugget.
Update on OIS at Vegas Valley and Maryland
The incident began at the Steinberg Diagnostic Medical parking lot and ended downtown.
Amy And Spencer Powell Recount Hit And Run
Amy Powell and her son Spencer recount the day Spencer was hit by a truck while riding his bike. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jeremy Burch of Tonopah arrested in Amarillo, TX
Jeremy Burch of Tonopah was arrested in Amarillo, TX on a Nye County warrant for open murder, burglary, obtaining money under false pretense, use of credit card w/o owner consent, and destruction of evidence. (Nye County Sheriff's Office/Facebook)
Metro Presser For OIS 6 (Full)
Metro police address the officer involved shooting that took place on March 19, 2019.
Metro Presser For OIS 6
Metro police address the officer involved shooting that took place on March 19, 2019.
Domestic disturbance call ends in suicide
A man died by suicide after police tried negotiating with him outside of his ex-girlfriend’s home on March 13. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
20-year-old armed robbery suspect shot by Las Vegas police
A 20-year-old armed robbery suspect shot by a Las Vegas officer on Saturday night is also accused of burglarizing a Boys & Girls Club minutes before the shooting.
Commercial Robbery On 3000 Block Of North Las Vegas Blvd - VIDEO
On February 19th, 2019, at approximately 10:23 am, a robbery occurred to a business located on the 3000 block of North Las Vegas Boulevard. The pictured suspect entered the business, approached the counter and pointed a firearm at the victim demanding money. The victim complied and the suspect fled with an undisclosed amount of money. No injuries were reported.
DEA Launches New Program To Combat Opioid Epidemic
The Drug Enforcement Administration is launching a new effort in Nevada to combat the opioid epidemic.
THE LATEST