The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

Jeff Berry, Former Klan Leader, Dies at 64

By Bill Morlin on June 7, 2013 - 4:55 pm, Posted in Klan, White Supremacist
eff Berry, former leader of the American Knights of the Ku Klux KlanJeff Berry, former leader of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (AP Photo/April L. Brown)

Jeffery Lynn Berry, who once headed the largest Ku Klux Klan group in the United States, often called the “bully-boy Klan,” died of lung cancer on May 31 at a hospital in Cook County, Ill., authorities confirmed today. He was 64 and most recently had been living in Kankakee, Ill.

Despite the headlines he once generated with Klan rallies and marches and theatrical appearances on the Jerry Springer TV show, Berry’s death a week ago hasn’t sparked a ripple of attention anywhere – even in KKK circles and Internet racist forums.

It took Hatewatch five days to confirm that a white sheet was pulled over Berry’s head for one final time – this time in a hospital bed where he died. He was cremated, and there was no public service, according to Heartland Memorial Center in Tinley Park, Ill., which handled his final arrangements.

Berry, known for his racist verbosity and theatrics, formed the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1995 in Butler, Ind. By the end of the 1990s the racist group claimed 27 highly active chapters around the country. The group attracted thugs and criminals – and worldwide attention, thanks to two appearances on the “Jerry Springer Show” that involved shouting and fighting.

“After that first show aired, applications for our Klan group came rolling in,” Berry’s former chief assistant, Brad Thompson, told Hatewatch. As a condition for appearing on the show, Berry demanded that his KKK group’s phone number be aired. Producers did that but also aired the phone number of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“One day we sat down and I helped him count well over $60,000 that had come in the mail with application forms from all around the world,” Thompson said. When Thompson suggested the Klan group donate the money to a civic cause or park equipment, he said Berry scoffed and rejected the idea, saying the Klan wouldn’t get any recognition for such philanthropy.

“He didn’t have a job and, for him, it was all about that money,” Thompson said.

Thompson later defected from the American Knights, denounced its brand of racism and wrote a self-published book “Under the Hood” in 1996. As a result, he said, his life was threatened on several occasions and his car tires were flattened repeatedly.

Indiana State Police Detective Mark Heffelfinger spent years dealing with Berry and his son, Anthony “Tony” Berry, when they lived in Butler, Ind.

“At one point in time, Jeff was the grand wizard of the largest, most vocal and violent KKK organization in the country,” Heffelfinger told Hatewatch.

Berry initially developed his KKK following, the detective said, after a racist march in Hicksville, Ohio, just few a miles from where he lived.

“Most (police) dealings with him (involved) disputes with his neighbors,”

Heffelfinger said. “Then, as he began to have rallies, the issue became controlling any clashes between his group and the protesters.”

There also were occasional theft or assault complaints from within Berry’s Klan group, and that would prompt Berry to call the Indiana state police detective who he regularly vilified, papering the community with anti-police flyers.

“It always amazed me that he would protest on the courthouse square about me, leave flyers on the windshields of cars complaining about me, but would still call me if he had an issue with someone else,” the detective told Hatewatch.

As Berry’s KKK group grew, its members became increasing volatile and violent, ultimately leading to the kidnapping of George Sells and Heidi Thiel, who then worked as journalists for WHAS-TV in Louisville, Ky.

The journalists interviewed Thompson about his book in 1999, and then went to see Berry to get his reaction – only to be kidnapped and held at gunpoint. Berry and other members of his “bully-boy” Klan demanded the journalists’ videotape.

One Klansman in the room was carrying a shotgun and loudly racked a shell into the chamber. After consulting with their own bosses by telephone, the journalists surrendered the tape to win their release.

Police arrested Berry – a longtime police drug informant – but prosecutors initially declined to file charges, saying there was insufficient probable cause to charge him with kidnapping. That’s when SPLC lawyers filed suit and scuttled Berry’s attempts to hide his financial assets, eventually getting the journalists a $120,000 civil judgment against Berry and his Klan organization.

After that civil case, local prosecutors decided they did have enough facts to charge Berry with kidnapping the journalists. In 2001, Berry pleaded guilty to several criminal charges related to the kidnapping and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Two years into his sentence, at the age of 51, Berry renounced the Ku Klux Klan and declared that he “turned his life over to God.”

After leaving prison and distancing himself from Klan activities, Berry was severely beaten by his own son, who had attempted to revive the American Knights while his father was in prison.

The beating occurred at a family cookout where Berry and his son apparently were discussing the younger man’s plans to revive the Klan group, said Heffelfinger, who investigated the assault. Tony Berry was charged and convicted of assaulting his father.

“Later they made up, and, until recently, Jeff lived with Tony and his wife in Auburn [Ind.],” the detective said. Jeff Berry recently moved to Kankakee, Ill.

“I was never sure if Jeff truly believed his racist rants or if it was just his way of gaining power and notoriety,” Heffelfinger told Hatewatch. “Now, I will never know for sure.”

  • Mette K

    The documentarist’s website:

  • Mette K

    I am a life-long fan of the works of Jacob Holdt, a Danish social photographer whose ‘American Pictures’ book put faces on poverty and racism in America for many Danes (and later other nationalities).

    One very remarkable aspect of Holdt’s work is his insistence on meeting everybody with a wide-open mind. He has hitch-hiked all over America and stayed as the guest of many people whom many would consider dangerous, including Klan members. He calls some of them his friends. Jeff Berry was one such friend of his although they had a falling-out following the filming of an im promptu documentary, Jacob and the Klan, with Holdt and Berry, in which Holdt tried to confront Berry personally with some of his other, black friends and victims of the American Knights. Berry left the Klan six months after filming the documentary.

    The documentary is made by Danish Mads Ellingsoe (who was a documentary novice then), aired on Danish TV several times and uploaded in a very unauthorized version on Holdt’s website: http://www.american-pictures.c.....oad-us.htm

    To me, one legacy of Jeff Berry’s is this: That it is my duty as a human being to treat every fellow human with respect and listen to their good side. Jeff Berry somewhere inside himself could find what it took to remain friends (well, up to a point) with a foreign, anti-violence, hippie photographer. It is my duty to remain open to such friendship.

  • jeff lee

    jeff and his younger brother set me up several times by planting drugs in my house and the cops showed up within 1 hour of them leaving both times. the cops went directly to where they found the drugs and i was arrested. i threatened to sue the kankakee police dept and expose their informants. the charges were dropped as long as i kept quiet. i believe jeff was in the employ of BATF while he was running the Klan. i have sinced became friends with some retired police officers from kankakee police dept and they tell me that the berry’s got away with alot of burglaries, thefts, etc by being informants for the pd.

  • http://facebook Eddie M

    Im no saint by any cost, but if jeff had family values i would have liked to know were they was. I sold jeff 3 different sales of marijuana and i paid for that mistake because of my stupidity to even engage in that kind of activity. But on one occaision jeff came for a purchase and i had none, i confronted Jeff Berry asking him if he was a CI (Confidential Informat) he got angry and pulled a pistol on me and replied would i do this if i was? I was holding my 7 month old daughter. Who could do that even if Jeff was undercover? He already asked for pot and knew i had none. I have since became a better person and have no remorse, it just sucks his life never really amounted to anything, and if this offends anybody im sorry. But ” Life’s not a word its a Sentence!” In Jeffs case.

  • Kiwiwriter

    “L.Berry said,

    on June 8th, 2013 at 11:09 am

    You really should get your facts right before posting things. My wonderful father in law was 60 when he passed away.
    Jeff Berry was a very loving person who will truly be missed.”

    Well, we’re sorry about the hit on the age, but the rest of this obituary is pretty well documented, and perhaps you can share with us why his son found it necessary to beat him so violently…and why Jeff Berry found it necessary to devote his life to the worthless and hurtful cause of the Ku Klux Klan.

    However, I am very aware that to his family — at least those who did not get into vicious fights with him — he was someone they miss and love. So you have my condolences for the loss of your father-in-law, but I do hope that the misguided values he held have not been needlessly inflicted on his descendants, so that the cycle of hate that he manifested ends with him.

  • aadila

    My hope is that whatever wrong choices he made, that somehow, some way he gained enough insight in life to choose a better way.

  • Rachel

    Looks like Jeff Berry was featured on the History of the KKK documentary that runs occasionally on the History Channel.

  • concernedcitizen

    It is the sign of a true idiot that spends his life and that of others trying to wreak torment upon others.

    It is their own curse to travel and waste their precious waking moments obsessed with their own behaviors and it is further a curse that they bring upon themselves the wrath of others who do in kind to them and their families.

    The problem with racist fools is that they never seem to learn and they pride themselves in their stupidity all the while believing themselves to be superior and intelligent, they are not. They continue in their circles of personal despair they obsess over those that would be their victims.

    Signs of truly disturbed minds. May the light of the law be put upon them and may we find a remote island to cart them off to where they will never plague any true civilization ever again and may they quickly wither away in their own hate.

  • Bill

    I remember seeing these guys perform their routine in full regalia on the steps of City Hall in Gary, Indiana in the 90’s. They showed their bravery by standing behind a temporary cyclone fence with the cops in front of them.

  • Chuck

    I can only hope his late-in-life renouncement of the Klan was sincere, else he’ll be paying for it now.

  • Reynardine

    L. Berry, many people have been loving parents, sibs, friends, and spouses, who were beasts to those they thought of as “the others”.

  • Mary Jane Stone

    Their great, achieving, attention grabbing champion of hate croaks and nobody in God’s Klan cares enough to even mention it and where people read about it is in Hatewatch. Says something about the MAN and the movement.

  • Erika

    i’m pretty much inclined to believe that anyone who appears on The Jerry Springer Show is only looking to get on television in the worst way possible. although it doesn’t surprise me at all that they received an increase in membership from the uneducated unemployed trailer trash who comprise a large portion of The Jerry Springer Show audience. i’m sure that Northwestern University Law School is very proud to count Jerry Springer as their most famous graduate.

    But at least Jerry Springer had intelligence and education to waste – unlike Jeff Berry whose entire adult life is pretty pathetic and shows just how far the Kluless Klan Kreeps have fallen. i especially like the part about him being a drug snitch for years – and despite being a longtime snitch still doing something stupid enough to wind up in prison. What a maroon that guy was.

  • Duane

    good riddance

  • concernedcitizen

    I can believe that there are those who do this merely for the money because they are social outcasts and can’t sustain gainful employment or operate a business that actually does something good for the community.

    Well I don’t think a great deal of Americans are going to miss him at all.

  • L.Berry

    You really should get your facts right before posting things. My wonderful father in law was 60 when he passed away.
    Jeff Berry was a very loving person who will truly be missed.

  • M. Bright

    End of life is a special time, where one cannot help but assess what it’s all been about, what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished, along with questions of why we’re here, and just a whole host of serious questions to ponder.

    I cannot imagine coming to my end with this man’s baggage. What a miserable experience that would be.

  • Gregory

    What a sad and pathetic character. Nice pun about the sheet, however.

  • Aron

    While I would like to believe that he actually recanted his views, something tells me that doesn’t jive with reality.