The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan build a reputation of aggressive action. Headed by Jeff Berry, this group's violent actions guarantees publicity that continues to draw in those susceptible to the message.
They are, to all appearances, an organization of thugs. Bad neighbors. Street fighters. They include rip-off artists and would-be wife-killers. Alleged abusers of infants. Drug informants.
One former state leader served two years for the gang rape of a college student. Another leader publicly threatened a massacre if the group were attacked. One alleged member was charged last year with shooting up a black man's occupied home.
They are the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
At a time when some Klan organizations are making great efforts to portray themselves as mere white pride civic groups, the American Knights don't bother. They stand on courthouse steps bellowing racial epithets and attacking everything from Jews to gay men and lesbians to foreigners to abortion providers.
In their literature, they have described blacks as "primitive, ugly, foul-smelling, jungle savages [who] have polluted America with their ape-like odor and disgusting habits." Prone to carrying guns, these are Klansmen who speak in obscenity-laced tirades that leave nothing to the imagination.
"We use the hate language," Jeff Berry, imperial wizard of the American Knights, told the Intelligence Report. "Sometimes you have to, to get a point across."
The American Knights also are the fastest-growing, most aggressive Klan group in America today. From a single unit formed in Butler, Ind., in 1995, they have exploded into at least 27 state chapters today. And their recruiting efforts are continuing apace.
The American Knights' growth is remarkable, given that the Klan has been declining in numbers over the last 20 years and is currently split into more than 50 named Klan organizations.
Although Berry and other Klan leaders claim tens of thousands of followers, there are probably fewer than 6,000 active Klansmen nationwide. But there are likely many times that number of passive Klan supporters.
Jerry Springer, Halloween and the Klan
How has Berry — a vulgar man who's racked up a remarkable array of arrests for theft, assaults and a variety of petty crimes — been so successful?
Largely, it seems, by being himself.
While Berry's foul-mouthed speeches and trademark tough-boy style certainly turn off most who hear him, they also earn him in some constituencies an image as a fighting Klansman unafraid to tell it like it is.
Even as newspaper editorialists decry the violence his insulting rally speeches provoke in counterdemonstrators, that same violence guarantees publicity that continues to draw in those susceptible to Berry's message.
This is a man who understands the media.
Before agreeing to appear in 1996 on television's trash-talking "Jerry Springer Show," he demanded that the American Knights' telephone number appear on the screen — and Springer agreed. The result, claims Berry's former deputy, was some 6,200 calls seeking membership applications.
And while Springer's producers insisted that Berry's number be displayed alongside that of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center, many of those calling the Center seemed confused. They, too, were looking to join up.
There has been other cleverness as well. A favorite tactic in states from Pennsylvania to California has been to grab stacks of free newspapers, repackage them with Klan literature inserted, and toss them onto unsuspecting people's lawns and stoops.
Members have concentrated recruiting efforts around high schools with racial divisions. Last fall, leaders in Georgia tried to get around anti-masking laws used to prevent hooded Klansmen in public by planning a rally for Halloween — a day when masks are ubiquitous.
Local officials have repeatedly tried to keep the American Knights from appearing in their towns — usually fruitlessly, as the First Amendment unequivocally protects their rights to engage in hateful speech. Sometimes, these efforts have backfired dramatically.
An Illinois Town Caves In
Last March, Berry's group filed a lawsuit against the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill., after officials moved to deny a parade permit. Led by Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, the officials got the suit dismissed — and the rally canceled — after coming up with a $10,000 anonymous donation to be used to mail out Klan literature to all town residents.
What the town sought to avoid was a hefty bill for security at the rally. What it got was a national reputation for having caved in shamelessly to Klan extortion.
The American Knights did get the $10,000, according to Worth H. Weller, who co-authored a new anti-Klan book, Under the Hood, with Berry's former Indiana leader, Brad Thompson (DeWitt Books). But Berry never bothered to send the literature out, according to Thompson. Berry apparently got the money, he says, and national publicity to boot.
No potential tactic is ignored by these Klansmen.
Even as Berry and other leaders attack blacks and others in language most newspapers refuse to print, they will occasionally portray themselves as a high-minded civil rights group for whites.
In Yukon, Penn., then-state leader and convicted gang rapist Ed Foster made headlines by promising to fight a planned "toxic waste dump" — a campaign decried by other dump opponents whose own efforts were being hijacked.
Kay Ryan, who took over as Pennsylvania grand dragon after Foster quit in a fit of pique to form his own Klan group, boasted last fall of helping a 76-year-old white woman clean up her house in response to a citation.
"We feel that the elderly is the most precious natural resource that we have," a sanctimonious Ryan said last year. "We're asking our people to take one hour a week and spend it with an elderly person."
Berry can sound that note, too. "We're a civil rights group for white people," he told the Report. "I admire Martin Luther King. He fought and died for his people's rights, and that's probably what I'm going to do — die for my people's rights."
'Wiping Out' the Children
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.
The Rap Sheets
· Ed Foster, Berry's Pennsylvania leader until October 1997, led a gang rape of a 19-year-old college student in 1969. After the attack, Foster ran a pool cue through the woman's dog and torched her car. He served two years for the assault.
A former motorcycle gang member with "Born to Lose" tattooed on a forearm, Foster reacted with typical fury when a slaughterhouse he planned to convert into a Klan church was burned in 1997. "Whoever burned this down, I'm gonna kill," he said. "They're dead. They're murdered. Their families are dead. We are going to burn their houses down."
A short time later, he nearly ran down a television crew with his car.
· Michael McQueeney, until recently Berry's Wisconsin state leader, was sentenced in 1988 to six years in prison for conspiring to murder his ex-wife Audra Moe. McQueeney first paid his co-conspirators in Illinois to break Moe's legs with a baseball bat and then, when that failed, to shoot her on two different occasions.
On the last attempt, Moe was shot in the face but lived. In 1997, McQueeney, who split with Berry in 1998, was charged with intentionally receiving stolen property in connection with the theft of a snow plow. Last year, a judge granted a restraining order prohibiting him from harassing a family.
· Thomas Robert Moore, leader of a North Carolina chapter, has been charged with assault to inflict serious injury; simple assault; injury to personal property; impeding traffic; resisting arrest and violating a noise ordinance after allegedly firing a gun at a rally.
For reasons ranging from insufficient evidence to failure of a witness to appear, most of these charges were eventually dismissed.
In 1997, Moore threatened "another Greensboro" if stones were thrown at his group at a return engagement rally planned for Asheville, N.C. Five anti-Klan protesters were killed by Klansmen in Greensboro, N.C., in 1979.
· Ricky Linville, another North Carolina chapter leader, was found guilty in late 1997 with his wife, Linda, of communicating threats in an incident involving an interracial couple living next door. Both Linvilles were given 45-day suspended sentences and a year of probation. In 1992, Ricky Linville also drew a six-month suspended sentence and three years' probation for shoplifting.
He also has been found innocent or had charges dismissed after being arrested for assault with a deadly weapon; simple assault; possession of marijuana; and shoplifting in an incident unrelated to his earlier conviction.
· Jimmy Ray Shelton, Berry's national security chief, was given a 45-day suspended sentence and five years' probation after a Klan rally in North Carolina last August. Police found a concealed 9mm handgun and a shotgun in his car. Earlier in 1998, Shelton was charged with assaulting a woman. That case was outstanding at press time.
· J.J. Jones, North Carolina state leader, was arrested at a 1997 rally in North Carolina for being a fugitive on an outstanding check fraud warrant from Virginia.
'The Garbage Man'
More serious cases have come up as well.
Last spring, Jacob Wayne Stull, a 20-year-old supposed American Knights member and Shelton associate, was arrested for allegedly firing an AK-47 into the home of a black family living in a white North Carolina neighborhood.
Isaiah Edgerton, his wife, a friend and a 2-year-old girl were present when at least 10 shots hit their mobile home, but no one was hit. Another man riding in Stull's vehicle at the time was also arrested.
Stull has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder; discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling; possession of weapons of mass destruction; and a variety of other crimes including drug possession and dealing. Police found an arsenal of weapons, along with Klan and Nazi propaganda, when they raided Stull's home after the attack.
To Brad Thompson, who renounced the Klan and racism before going on to co-author his book about the American Knights, Jeff Berry is a simple opportunist. Berry, he says, runs his group as a moneymaking operation, raking in $20 application fees, "lease" fees for Klan robes and other organizational money for his own personal use.
Thompson alleges that Berry has used some of this money to buy a new pickup truck, a trailer and a dragster decorated with a long-standing Klan symbol; thousands of dollars in stereo and sound studio equipment; a hot tub; and various home improvements.
Hogwash, retorts Berry. "I just have good credit, that's all."
Thompson also alleges that the American Knights had an inner circle of Klansmen deeply involved in drugs — the "420 Club," which he says refers to a "four-finger" bag of marijuana that sells for $20. He says that this group of ranking members — which he adds does not include Berry — also used methamphetamines, LSD and other drugs.
But Berry says these people all have long since left his group.
In fact, he insists, so have all those with whom he's had disagreements. Thompson was a drunk who had to be gotten rid of. Foster was a Nazi (although Berry knew this full well when Foster was in the group) and, after all, "Hitler was a scumbag." Berry has done so many housecleanings, he says, that his confederates have given him a nickname.
"They call me," he says without irony, "the garbage man."