American Knights Klan Group Builds Thuggish Reputation
But above all, there have been the rallies.
Tirelessly, Berry's followers have trooped from state to state and city to city, holding forth in town squares and on courthouse steps. While most Klan groups might demonstrate once every few months at most, the American Knights are somewhere on virtually every weekend.
Almost everywhere, they've been met with angry counterdemonstrators. And almost everywhere, they've managed to reap a rich crop of publicity as a result.
Two summers ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., Klan protesters hurled rocks at Berry and his followers, opening the scalp of Berry's wife, Edna. Berry sued the city for $8 million and won headlines around the Midwest. In October 1997, the Knights marched in Asheville, N.C., and again were pelted with rocks.
Delighted with publicity depicting a downtown war, local leader Robert Moore scheduled another Asheville rally. But he had a warning: His Klansmen would be coming armed next time, and if a single rock were thrown "it won't take us but 88 seconds to wipe out what's standing across the street, and God forbid if there's any children there." Officials used that threat to deny a parade permit.
In January 1998, epithet-spewing American Knights demonstrated again, this time on the weekend of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. — in Memphis, where King was shot in 1968. After anti-Klan demonstrators attacked police and broke shop windows, more than 25 were arrested as tear gas filled downtown. Now, the publicity was national.
The list goes on, but the tactic has remained the same. Bring a few Klansmen to town. From behind secure police lines, insult whoever is within shouting distance and then stand back as the crowd erupts. Give interviews freely. And head for the hills.
These members of the American Knights are men with a message. And in many cases, they are men with a history — a history inscribed on criminal rap sheets.
Consider the case of the imperial wizard.
Rip-offs, Beatings and Guns
In 1994, Berry was charged with ripping off an elderly Indiana neighbor. Prosecutors said he took $1,050 from Virginia Cook to replace her roof, but never did the work. Berry also allegedly was paid $467 for plumbing work — far in excess of its value — and $400 for a used water heater she had already paid him for.
And Cook supposedly paid him $1,600 to fix her car. But relatives soon put Cook in a nursing home and that work was never done. Berry was facing three counts of theft and one of home improvement fraud.
By the time the case came to trial, Cook had died. And, as it turned out, Berry had become a drug informant for local authorities. Prosecutor Monte Brown dropped three of the charges after telling the court Berry's work led to 160 drug buys and the arrest of 70 people.
Convicted of the remaining felony theft charge, Berry was given a three-year suspended sentence and ordered to serve three years' probation.
Two years later, on Feb. 20, 1996, Berry was charged with two counts of battery after a man who had rented a house from him told police Berry had beaten him twice after he tried to recoup money Berry owed him. Berry's son, Anthony, also allegedly threatened the man with a rifle.
Immediately after the charges were filed, authorities raided the Berrys' home and seized marijuana, drug paraphernalia and six guns, including a MAC-90 semi-automatic rifle. Convicted felons such as Jeff Berry are not allowed to own weapons.
The next month, Jeff Berry was arrested again on a felony warrant for receiving stolen property — also in connection with allegations made by Berry's former tenant, Frank Larry Head.
Officials moved to revoke his felony after each of these arrests and a third, when he was charged, along with six other Klansmen, with obstruction of traffic, rioting, disorderly conduct and resisting police at a June Klan rally in New Castle, Ind.
Berry pleaded guilty in the New Castle case to obstruction of traffic and disorderly conduct in October 1996, after prosecutors agreed to drop the two other charges.
But Berry's former tenant later withdrew his allegations in the battery and stolen property cases, and prosecutors were forced to drop those charges. In the end, after a series of court delays, officials abandoned all efforts to revoke Berry's probation.
Klansmen Make Poor Neighbors
Arrest records are not public documents, and it's unclear if Berry may have had other arrests — but he implied as much in his interview with the Report. "Most of my criminal history was, like, getting in fights," he said. "Any time you're in [a Klan] organization ... they're going to drum up charges against you.
"And if you don't have the money, then you'll plea bargain. ... I'm not going to sit here and tell you all of them were false charges. I regret what I've done, and I apologize. But none of them was [sic] hate crimes."
Berry's family has had its legal troubles, as well.
A long-running dispute with a neighboring family heated up on Aug. 1, 1995, when Edna Berry, despite a protective order forbidding such conduct, allegedly yelled at Barbara Scott that she would "shove them [expletive] binoculars up your [expletive]."
Nine days later, Anthony Berry violated the same protective order by yelling at Scott. While Edna was acquitted, her son avoided trial by promising no further crimes for six months.
In November 1995, Anthony Berry, then 20, punched a 17-year-old boy in the face during a Klan rally in Auburn, Ind. After pleading guilty, he was given a one-year suspended sentence and six months' probation and ordered to have no guns outside his home.
The following spring, Anthony, an official in his father's Klan group, was in trouble again. After moving in with a woman he met at a Klan rally, he was accused of felony battery of the woman's 10-month-old infant.
Doctors found bite marks on the child that matched Anthony's teeth after its grandparents took the infant to a hospital. Jeff Berry said recently that the charge, punishable by three years in prison, was still pending.
And then there are Berry's deputies.