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VIDEO VAULT | Tourists, workers shaken amid 1986 arson spree at Las Vegas resorts

Fire at Sands.jpg
A fire at the Sands was one in a string of arsons reported at Las Vegas resorts in 1986.

It's been four decades since a pair of multi-fatality fires sent Las Vegas reeling.

The MGM fire in November of 1980 took 85 lives, and the Hilton fire in February of 1981 killed eight people.

Fire code reforms were quickly enacted. So it was a shock when, five years later, fire alarms sounded in a high-rise on the Strip.

It was the night of February 22, 1986, when the Fire Department was summoned to extinguish not one, but two separate fires at the Flamingo Hilton that started within minutes of one another.

"We feel there was a burglary first, and then the fire was set to either cover the tracks or whatever reason," said Fire Investigator Mike Patterson the following morning. "But they're very similar. We're looking at employees, people with keys, people with access to that area. There's a bunch of different directions. The hotel's helping us at this time. And so is Metro."

"Flamingo [general manager] Horst Dziura says the hotel has beefed up security in the wake of the two fires," reported News 3's Mike Davis. "And fire officials say the hotel has begun doing background checks on its employees."

It turned out that this was not an isolated pair of incidents at the Flamingo.

Three days later, a series of five fires in a single night hit the Dunes. Most were extinguished automatically by sprinklers that had been installed in the ceilings of the hotel guest areas. A couple of fires in storage rooms had to be extinguished by hose and ladder crews.

"Well, all of a sudden the smoke alarm in the hotel corridor went off," one hotel patron evacuated to the parking lot told News 3. "At first we thought it was coming from the television set. But then we knew it was the alarm, so we immediately gathered up our clothing and got out."

There was confusion, and a lot of smoke, but no one was seriously hurt. Channel 3's correspondent on the scene seemed frustrated about restrictions on doing his job.

"Outside, the hotel security seemed to abandon distressed hotel guests in favor of keeping reporters and their cameras from entering the area," grumbled Rick Kirkham.

"Do Las Vegas tourists have something to worry about?" questioned News 3's Teresa Luce the next morning. "Ever since the fire at the MGM, resorts have gone out of their way to fireproof hotels. However, the fire department says people still do have something to worry about."

"I think people have the obligation to be concerned," said Clark County Fire Department Spokesman Bob Leinbach. "And they have the obligation to take care of themselves, which means they need to know, or when they go in structures, what kind of fire protection appliances there are, where exits are located."

On the evening of February 26, three separate hotels were hit by the arsonist. There were two fires at the Sands, another across the street at the Castaways, and a fire at Holiday Casino, where the governor of Nevada just happened to be giving a speech.

"Hopefully all of the law enforcement agencies can mobilize all of their forces and get this idiot, this person who must be doing this," then-Gov. Richard Bryan told media members assembled in the parking lot. "It seems to me there's a common thread that runs through them. From at least the news reports that I've seen. Hopefully, we can get to the bottom of this very quickly."

This time, a number of eyewitness reports pointed to a suspect. Thomas Littleowl, a 30-year-old drifter, was taken into custody. He had previously been charged but not convicted on arson charges in California.

Littleowl was taken to the Clark County Detention Center where News 3's Scott Andrus conducted a jailhouse interview.

"Did you do it," asked Andrus. "Did you set those fires?"

"No, I never set any fires in Vegas," responded Littleowl.

"Do you have a fascination with fire?"

"Fascination? No, never. Never had a fascination with fires."

"He admits to being close to the Strip hotels near the times of the fires, but says he was drawn toward the excitement after the fact," Andrus told News 3 viewers.

But several hotel employees placed Littleowl in the vicinity of the fires before they were set.

"I just glanced up at him," testified a valet worker at the Sands. "He just turned away and in about 10 seconds the alarm went off. And everything just registered."

"A man staying in that room testified his camera had been stolen," reported Luce, referring to the first fire at the Flamingo Hilton. "A Dunes security guard testified the man's stolen camera was one he received from Tom Littleowl in exchange for a loan."

Littleowl eventually reached an agreement pleading guilty to setting one of the fires at the Sands Hotel and was sentenced to 10 years in the Nevada State Prison system. His whereabouts today are unknown.

Despite the frightening arson spree in February of 1986, no one has died in a Nevada hotel fire since the Las Vegas Hilton blaze of 1981.