Hatewatch

Jeff Berry, Former Klan Leader, Dies at 64

Jeff 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.”