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Las Vegas Strip shooting was not valley’s first mass killing

The explosion ripped through the Las Vegas motel, decapitating people and sending body parts flying, with one woman’s leg embedded in a wall.

Triggered by an AWOL soldier with 50 sticks of dynamite, the blast left six people dead and garnered national news coverage.

And today, it’s likely that most people here have never heard of it.

When a gunman killed 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Strip on Oct. 1, it was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But it wasn’t the first mass killing in town.

Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas, said that when he was reading about the attack, he thought of the 1967 motel explosion, which occurred when he was 12 and living in Boulder City.

“It’s just part of Las Vegas’ lost history,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff like that.”

The explosion, at the Orbit Inn motel at Fremont and Seventh streets, where the Downtown Container Park retail complex now stands, got front-page coverage in Las Vegas newspapers, but only for a few days. Former longtime local journalist Myram Borders said she doesn’t recall any major follow-ups, either. Container Park map

Las Vegas is a transient town, but even a few longtime residents didn’t know about the explosion until contacted recently by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

K.J. Howe, former advertising and public relations director for downtown casino The Mint, moved to Las Vegas in 1970 but said he wasn’t familiar with the blast. Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV, who has written books about Nevada, said the same.

“I confess I haven’t heard of it!” he said in an email.

Details of the case survive in newspaper articles, but other sources appear scarce. The National Archives at Riverside couldn’t find any civil or criminal records on the case, and KSNV Channel 3, which did a segment on the bombing in 2014, reported that the FBI’s case file was destroyed in a purge of obsolete documents.

The Route 91 Harvest shooting touched the entire community, but that wasn’t the case with the Orbit Inn, said former longtime Las Vegas broadcaster Bob Stoldal. Still, he recalls a startling image from the scene.

Working for a radio station then, Stoldal arrived at the motel several hours after the explosion and, he said, saw a mattress hanging over a phone or power line.

‘Sounded like an A-bomb’

The blast happened around 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1967, a Saturday. In Sunday’s paper, the Review-Journal reported that an AWOL Army soldier, R.J. Paris of Hollywood, California, had apparently triggered a homemade bomb.

Las Vegas police initially believed he set off the explosion by firing a pistol into a bundle of dynamite sticks in a second-floor room at the motel.

(Other headlines in the RJ that day: “Interstate 15 Nears Completion” and “Man Now Woman In Sex Change.”)

The explosion cracked windows in buildings several blocks away and sent a human head into an alley behind the motel, the RJ reported. Fifty-two people were registered at the motel; six people, including Paris and his wife, Christine, were killed.

The Las Vegas Sun reported that all of the victims were decapitated and that first-responders found a woman’s mud-spattered hand with wedding and engagement rings still on a finger. At the neighboring El Cortez, a worker said it felt like the casino moved three inches.

Jim Mahan, an ex-Marine hospitalized by the blast, said in the Sun that the explosion “sounded like an A-bomb and smelled like sulphur and rotten eggs.”

He had been watching a Marine combat movie on TV when the explosion collapsed the ceiling of his unit. At first, he thought he had dozed off and the blast was part of the show, the Sun reported.

Mahan carried his wife through a window to escape.

Borders, the journalist, already was hospitalized when the explosion happened – she was in for perhaps an appendectomy, she recalled. One of the victims from Orbit Inn was wheeled into her room.

A doctor, covered in blood, came in to tell the woman that they had to amputate her husband’s leg.

50 sticks of TNT

Wire services dispatched stories of the explosion, which was front-page news around the country, including in Honolulu; St. Louis; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Tampa, Florida; and Burlington, North Carolina.

Then-District Attorney George Franklin said in the Las Vegas Sun that the blast “definitely has to be a suicide or homicide,” adding: “If we find anyone registered with the wrong wife or husband, we’ll have our first clue.”

Paris had bought 50 sticks of dynamite in Phoenix, and none of them failed to explode, the RJ reported. The paper also noted that local and FBI investigators wouldn’t say whether the explosion was a suicide, a homicide or an accident.

Soon enough, authorities were squabbling. Las Vegas police Lt. Paul Gulas, chief of detectives, criticized the D.A. for calling the blast a suicide attempt.

“I don’t know where he gets his theories, but it’s certainly not from the Las Vegas Police Department,” Gulas said.

The D.A. floated the theory to “thwart possible national publicity” that the Orbit Inn was a mafia hangout or “shack joint” of a prominent union leader, the RJ reported.

Franklin said he voiced the theory “even if I had to apologize later.”

Today, nearly a month after the Route 91 shooting, the massacre still is receiving coverage from the RJ and other news groups. But continuous front-page coverage of the Orbit Inn lasted just a few days.

By that Tuesday, headlines about the Saturday morning blast were gone from the Sun’s front page. By that Wednesday, they had disappeared from the RJ’s as well.

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Follow @eli_segall on Twitter.

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