Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

August 17-23, 2006

City Beat

War of the Words

A legendary (alleged) burglar sues to protect his, um, good reputation.

COURTS

Nobody seemed to notice the stocky 72-year-old man with thinning red hair and a goatee when he shuffled into a Camden County courtroom a couple weeks back. Only his olive green suit set him slightly apart from the buttoned-down lawyers waiting for the judge.

Speaking in a low, gruff voice, he would argue that his good name was under attack and that the judge should do something about it. Namely, he wanted his opponents punished for talking about him to the press and banned from doing so in the future.

RAP SHEETS: Representing himself in a $10 million libel suit, John Berkery says a book about the K&A gang is "nothing but lies."
RAP SHEETS: Representing himself in a $10 million libel suit, John Berkery says a book about the K&A gang is "nothing but lies."

But this wasn't your average plaintiff. This was John Berkery, the reputed leader of the notorious K&A (Kensington & Allegheny) burglary gang, which was implicated in the infamous 1959 Pottsville heist and accused of drug trafficking and other crimes over the years. Despite the reputation that accompanies such an (allegedly) sordid past, Berkery insists he's been a model citizen for 25 years. So, he says, anyone who prints a version of his (alleged) criminal history that deviates from how he remembers it is asking for a libel suit.

Temple University professor Allen Hornblum, who first heard of the gang as a teenager, knows Berkery isn't bluffing. He's the author of Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K&A Gang , which won WIP 610 AM's best summer-read poll and was excerpted in City Paper before the print hit the fans more than a year ago [Cover, "Road Companies, Brutes and Safe Crackers," May 26, 2005].

In an attempt to clear his name — or rewrite history, depending on whom you ask — Berkery filed a $10 million libel lawsuit against Hornblum, his publisher and the book's distributors. (He's also suing the Inquirer's Monica Yant Kinney over columns she wrote this May 7 and June 13 about the original suit. Kinney and Inquirer attorney Warren Faulk declined comment.)

Although Berkery's only mentioned on 20-some pages in the 304-page book, Berkery's lawsuit says that "when taken in context, the whole book is libelous per quod by its blanket implications that plaintiff was somehow associated with this so-called 'gang.'"

Seventeen sentences and phrases from the book as well as Hornblum's quotes from newspaper articles amount to a "defamatory diatribe," he says.

And it was that diatribe that brought him to Camden, in a familiar courtroom setting, to plead his case.

"The book," Berkery says, "is nothing but lies."

First off, Berkery takes issue with being lumped in with the K&A gang, which Hornblum describes as, "two-fisted, beer-guzzling, ear- and nose-biting hoodlums from a blue-collar, predominantly Irish section of Philadelphia called Kensington — a zany collection of urban idiot savants — basically, a ragtag band of union thugs, street hoods and academically challenged high school dropouts."

In the suit against Kinney, Berkery alleges that she falsely stated he was guilty of the Pottsville burglary (she said his conviction was overturned and record expunged), that he knew about crimes for which he was never charged (he said as much to an FBI agent), and that his likeness appears on the cover of the book (it does not appear on the book in its current edition so the Inquirer issued a correction).

But as far as Hornblum is concerned, there's no statute of limitations on the facts. In a 13-page sentencing memorandum from a 1987 drug conviction, former federal prosecutor Louis Pichini calls Berkery "a seasoned, professional felon whose illicit career spans four decades," and says his "unlawful activities exhibit a cunning, cleverness and sophistication that has little equal in the Philadelphia criminal community."

Pichini adds Berkery was "engaged in large-scale multifaceted drug dealings," including the trafficking of P2P, a chemical used to make methamphetamine, while a fugitive from justice.

But Berkery is probably best-known for his alleged role in K&A's burglary of a Schuylkill County coal baron.

George Holmes, who made a documentary about the break-in, called The Pottsville Heist , alleges that a showgirl named Lillian Reis gave the gang the tip they needed to pilfer $478,000 in cash and jewelry from the home of John B. Rich. (Berkery's conviction in connection with the heist was overturned when testimony was thrown out and the county opted not to retry the gang.) Holmes grew up in awe of Berkery.

"It was very well-known at that time that the best burglars in the country lived in Kensington," he says. Now, Holmes chuckles, Berkery is "in some sort of denial that us Kensingtonians don't understand."

Hornblum speculates that Berkery, a paralegal who is representing himself in the suit, wants to finagle a large cash award.

"He's developed a facility for the legal arena and thinks he's of legal standing and competence to shake someone down," says Hornblum. "It's almost like he's on a legal jihad here."

Even with the small percentage he earns from each book sold and his salary as a professor, Hornblum doesn't know how he's going to pay the $50,000 legal bill he's racked up so far.

In a phone interview after the hearing, Berkery insisted it's Hornblum who's motivated by "the almighty buck," but refused to elaborate, saying, "I don't intend to try my case in the press."

The recent hearing was the latest in a long string of legal entanglements surrounding Hornblum's book. A year ago, his first publisher, Temple University Press, heeded a warning from Berkery and yanked the book off shelves, leaving Hornblum scrambling to find a new publisher.

Enter the late Lyle Stuart. The self-professed "First Amendment fanatic" whose Fort Lee, N.J.-based Barricade Books is known for championing such controversial titles as 1970's The Anarchist Cookbook and Kitty Kelley's Jackie Oh! , trumpeted the title as "The book the mob tried to suppress."

Once the suit hit, Hornblum says he dove into Berkery's past, found evidence he snitched to the FBI and shared the damning documents with a friend who mailed them off to "associates" in and out of prison; Berkery countered with the legal motion he hoped would silence Hornblum.

Instead, Camden County Superior Court Judge Charles A. Little told Berkery to take his argument — that the FBI documents should not have been public information — to the judge who sealed the documents.

"Can you give me an order to that effect?" asked Berkery.

"I'll give you a copy of your motion stamped 'Denied,'" replied Little.

Berkery's next day in court is Oct. 30.

(jenna.portnoy@citypaper.net)

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