05/05/2006

Klan Leader's House Sold to Compensate SPLC Clients

 

Two television journalists who were held at gunpoint by Klan officials received compensation from the sale of the Klan leader's house, concluding a six-year legal battle waged by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"The goal of our lawsuit was to get compensation for our clients and put Jeff Berry out of business, and it succeeded," said SPLC Legal Director Rhonda Brownstein. "Berry went to prison, and his Klan organization was dismantled."

In January 2000, Berry's American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was the nation's largest and most aggressive Klan group, with 27 chapters in 13 states. Today, there are none.

The journalists, George Sells IV and Heidi Thiel, were covering Klan activity for Louisville television station WHAS in November 1999 when they went to Berry's Butler, Ind., home to interview him about an upcoming rally. Berry became enraged when he learned the pair intended to also interview a former Klan member who had renounced racism, and several followers forcibly detained the journalists and brandished a shotgun until they surrendered their videotapes.

SPLC lawyers won a $120,000 default judgment in the lawsuit, which claimed Berry falsely imprisoned and threatened the two journalists.

Berry, whose group was called "the bully-boy Klan," had a history of lawbreaking, including cheating an elderly woman neighbor. But he had always avoided prison, partly by becoming a police drug informant supposedly responsible for 70 arrests. Once again, when Sells and Thiel reported the 1999 incident to police, authorities declined to arrest Berry or charge him.

"The Center allowed us a venue to try and rectify a situation where we were held hostage and had our tapes stolen," Thiel said. "Without the Center pursuing it, I don't know that any criminal action would have followed."

Almost a year after the Center brought its lawsuit, prosecutors decided to charge Berry with five felonies. In the end, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit criminal confinement with a deadly weapon in return for the dropping of other charges. He served almost four years of a seven-year sentence.

Although Berry had few assets, the Center pursued all avenues for collecting the judgment to ensure he would feel its full sting.

"When Berry transferred his only asset -- a modest house -- to a girlfriend in an effort to keep it from our clients' reach, we sued him again," Brownstein said.

Center lawyers ultimately prevailed. In early April, the house was sold, and Theil and Sells each received $6,500 from the sale.

"It definitely wasn't about the money," Thiel said. "For me, it looked like he was going to get away with using a weapon to hold us hostage. To let him go unpunished did not make sense."