Accidental or Arson? Investigating a connection between the deadly Las Vegas MGM Grand and Hilton fires

True Crime

November 21, 2020 marks 40 years since the deadly fire at the Las Vegas MGM Grand.

Smoke pours from the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas at the height of a fire, in which 85 people died, 21st November 1980. The hotel was rebuilt and is now Bally’s Las Vegas. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

MYSTERY WIRE — On November 21, 1980 a fire tore through the original MGM Grand in Las Vegas killing 87 people, most through smoke inhalation. Just 81 days later on February 10, 1981 fire killed eight people. After extensive investigations, the MGM fire was ruled accidental (electrical) and the Hilton fire was ruled arson.

At the time of the fires there was speculation the two were connected. The allegation of a serial arsonist was investigated by George Knapp 20 years after the deadly fire. Below are two stories, as presented on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas in 2000 and 2001.


November 21, 2000

Veteran fire investigator Lorne Lomprey leaves no room for doubt about the cause of the MGM Blaze, “The MGM fire, as tragic as it was, was unfortunately just an electrical fire.” It was an electrical problem inside a wall and not arson. Lomprey wrote the county’s voluminous report on the tragedy.

“The MGM fire was 100% an accidental fire 100% an electrical fire,” Lomprey said. “There were too many people looking at it or too many authorities looking at it were backed up by the National Fire Protection Association team. They looked at it, they all concurred.”

(Original Caption) Air Force helicopters hover over the MGM Grand Hotel here, after a disastrous fire took at least 80 lives. Hundreds more guests were injured. The huge “copters brought fire fighting equipment and fire fighters and landed them on the building’s roof.

But according to former homicide detectives, Lomprey told a different story just a few months after the MGM burned when the Las Vegas Hilton caught fire on a February night. Homicide detective Bob Hilliard says he met Lomprey at the Hilton and heard a chilling tale. “He said the same guy that burnt this place burnt the MGM, and I said you guys ruled it accidental. And he pulled out a Keno slip and drew me a diagram on the back of it of exactly how the suspect had started the arson fire at MGM. He was very upset when he told me that, upset with his department.”

Someone else who says he overheard the same conversation as former detective Chuck Lee. Lee helped nail the culprit in the Hilton fire, a busboy named Philip Cline. And Hilliard says his team later learned that Cline had a history of setting fires at his workplaces, that he had worked at the MGM previously and that he was at the MGM on the morning the fire started.

Lomprey says someone is clearly mistaken and “absolutely incorrect and wrong.”

“They may have gotten into the MGM or the Hilton mixed up or they could get me drawing a diagram, sitting around a barstool, or whatever else supposed to be doing,” Lomprey said. “Trying to compare the Hilton fire with the MGM fire. It’s just crazy. It’s just crazy.”

Phillip Cline (Photo: KLAS-TV)

Lompray says he remembers hearing rumors about Philip Cline being at the MGM but no one was ever able to confirm them. He adds that during the investigation which involved hundreds of millions of dollars in potential lawsuits, plenty of powerful people wanted it to be an arson fire and made offers to him to make it so, but he didn’t. “You cannot believe how many people approached me,” Lomprey said. “How many people offered me things cannot believe the phone calls over and over. Even after it was over with for several months. Just all I had to do was turn my cheek.”

In 2020 Lomprey rans a private eye firm that specialized in fire investigations. His report stands as the official record of the MGM blaze. Hilliard retired from Metro and was writing a book about the MGM case. He claimed to know of a third witness who overheard Lomprey at the Hilton that night.

Philip Cline is serving eight life terms for the arson murders at the Hilton.


February 9, 2001

In the days following the deadly Las Vegas Hilton fire Phillip Cline said, “I feel partly responsible for it. And um, I do feel sorry for the families that they left behind.”

After he was caught lying during a police polygraph exam, Hilton Hotel busboy Philip Cline admitted to lawmen that he was there when the fire began.

Cline claimed he met a man named Joe that the two had an intimate rendezvous on the eighth floor, and while smoking a marijuana cigarette, they accidentally set drapes on fire. Investigators tried to duplicate the feat but couldn’t. They and the jury concluded Cline was guilty of arson and murder.

In an exclusive interview with then Channel Eight (KLAS) reporter Mark Fierro. Cline stuck to his story, “I didn’t light that fire at one them to know that.”

“It was almost as if you spoke too loudly that he’d shatter into a million pieces,” Fierro later said. “He never veered from the defense story that he was sitting with somebody else and that that other person was the one who started the Las Vegas home fire.”

Fierro tried to learn the identity of the mysterious Joe but Cline wouldn’t say much. Cline’s attorney Kevin Kelly made his own forays into local gay bars looking for Joe to no avail. Investigators believe Joe didn’t exist, that Cline made him up.

Cline’s lawyer, who at the time had never tried a case, still thinks about Cline’s innocence or guilt. When asked if there was a point that he believed his client was innocent he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if there was ever a point that I did or didn’t. You know, I think part of the reasons I took it and part of my representation just dealt with the fact that I was relatively new. I was still filled with the ideals of the law.”

Kelly admits he may have made mistakes and thinks Cline deserved at least a review for a new trial, something he’s never received. Late last year (2000), Cline wrote two letters to the KLAS I-Team from his cell in Lovelock, Nevada. He vowed that he would like to tell everything and an interview, then changed his mind and clammed up.

Some lawmen believe Cline may have had something to do with the MGM fire. They say he was there when it broke out and that he has a history of setting fires.

“There was a roadway in Oakland, California. There was a restaurant in Barstow, California, and results indicated he set fires at the El Cortez hotel after being terminated there,” detective Bob Hilliard said.

The overwhelming preponderance of evidence is that the MGM fire started accidentally inside a wall and fire officials scoff at any suggestion Cline was involved. Hillier was writing a book about his theory. He’s backed up by Chuck Lee, the detective who got Cline to confess, Cline was reportedly talking about his own book deal, a project in which he might tell more about the infamous Joe or even perhaps about other tragedies.

(Original Caption) Several of the scores of helicopters used to rescue people from the roof of the MGM Grand Hotel can be seen hovering over the hotel here. At least 75 people have died in the fast moving fire, but the helicopters were able to pluck over 1,000 people from the building.

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