Facing a civil suit judgment and possible criminal charges, Jeff Berry, the leader of the American Knights of the KKK is at a crossroads.
Instead, he won attention and members for his American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan with swaggering taunts, raucous rallies and old-fashioned race hate. For a while, the tactics paid off, and by 1998 the American Knights were the largest Klan group in the country.
But now, the leader of what has been termed "the bully-boy Klan" may be headed for political oblivion. He faces both an imminent civil court judgment and the possibility of criminal charges in both Kentucky and Indiana. And the ranks of his organization, a group largely led by convicted criminals, are thinning.
Ultimately, Berry's legal troubles could spell his group's end.
Most recently, Berry was arrested after an Aug. 12 Klan rally in Hazard, Ky. Police say Berry and some supporters got into an argument with a black man in a parking lot, chased the man for two miles in their van, and then rammed the man's car. A grand jury is now weighing possible criminal charges.
Berry's other troubles stem from an incident in November 1999 in his home in Butler, Ind. Two journalists from a Louisville, Ky., television station had come to interview Berry about an upcoming rally, and were asked by Berry if they also planned to talk to a former Berry deputy who had defected from the group. When told that they did, Berry became enraged and demanded their videotape.
At Shotgun Point
But the journalists — reporter George Sells IV and camerawoman Heidi Thiel — refused. At that, Berry and his supporters closed the doors and blocked in the pair's vehicle with their own. In the end, after a Berry supporter pumped a shotgun several times — a move clearly designed to intimidate the journalists — they gave up the tape and were allowed to leave Berry's home.
At first, local authorities declined to prosecute. But Sells and Thiel, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a civil suit accusing Berry of unlawful false imprisonment. Last April 20, a default judgment was entered against Berry because he had failed to file an answer to the civil complaint.
The court also later fined Berry for "willfully fail[ing] to attend his deposition." On Oct. 10, a hearing was held in Ft. Wayne, Ind., to determine damages due Sells and Thiel. A judgment amount is expected to be determined by year's end.
Now, authorities in Dekalb County are considering bringing criminal charges. Prosecutor Monte Brown said the case is still under investigation. If Berry were convicted of criminal confinement, he could face up to 10 years in prison.
Avoiding The Law
After the default was entered against Berry, he transferred his two major assets — two properties near Ft. Wayne — in an apparent attempt to evade a possible judgment against him.
Berry gave his residence, a $56,000 home that also serves as the American Knights' headquarters, to his father as a "gift." He sold another property, valued at $51,000, to his girlfriend — for $3,700.
The plaintiffs could still get them. On Oct. 17, a state court halted any attempt to place Berry's assets beyond the reach of the plaintiffs. Berry agreed to the injunction that prevented him, his girlfriend or his father from any further transfers of the properties until the lawsuit against Berry are resolved.
Legal trouble is nothing new to Berry, but so far he has always found a way to avoid prison and keep the American Knights alive. He has one felony conviction, for stealing from an elderly woman neighbor, but served no time when it was revealed that he was responsible for 70 arrests as a narcotics informant. Over the years, Berry has managed to beat a variety of other criminal charges.
But if Berry can't find a way out of his current predicaments, the American Knights may fold even faster than they once spread — and they did spread fast, thanks largely to Berry's highly confrontational, attention-getting tactics.
Berry specialized in riling up counterdemonstrators, often provoking violence that typically brought media coverage, and so his message was spread. He managed to get on a number of national television shows, including several appearances on Jerry Springer's tabloid talk program — shows that brought in queries from many hundreds of people interested in joining his group or sending in money.
At its peak in 1998, the American Knights had at least three dozen chapters nationwide, some of them in places like California and New York that were unused to being havens for the Klan.
But since then, the group has faded, with about eight known chapters now operating. Although the American Knights have managed to hold 11 rallies this year, that is far less than a few years back.
Throughout its short life, the American Knights has been a group built almost entirely around the aggressive, no-holds-barred personality of its abrasive leader. So if Jeff Berry does wind up in prison, the American Knights may simply fade away.