Intimidation costs Klansman $120,000

The Journal Gazette/January 4, 2001
By Laura Emerson

A federal judge in Fort Wayne has ordered Ku Klux Klansman Jeff Berry to pay $120,000 to a Louisville, Ky., TV news team who said Berry held them hostage at his home in November 1999.

George M. Sells IV and Heidi Thiel of WHAS-TV in Louisville were awarded $60,000 each in punitive and compensatory damages stemming from a civil lawsuit they filed against Berry in U.S. District Court in January 2000.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Roger B. Cosbey ruled on the case Dec. 22. His order was made public Wednesday.

Berry, 47, of Newville, said he intended to appeal the decision. He represented himself in court.

Neither Sells nor Thiel could be reached immediately for comment.

Berry had sought to dismiss the complaint, alleging among other things that the Southern Poverty Law Center had conspired with the TV crew and former Klansman Brad Thompson to deprive him of his freedom of religion.

The Southern Poverty Law Center started in 1971 as a civil rights law firm and now tracks hate groups, including the KKK. It provided attorneys for the TV reporter and photographer.

Cosbey denied Berry's motion to dismiss the case, saying there was no evidence to support his allegations.

The magistrate's order follows an Aug. 23 decision to award Sells and Thiel $2,481 in costs and attorney's fees for Berry's failure to appear at his deposition.

Berry's failure to appear at another hearing also cost him the right to challenge the allegations brought by Sells and Thiel. Cosbey issued a default judgment against him and set an Oct. 10 hearing to determine damages.

According to the lawsuit, Sells, a TV reporter, and Thiel, a camera operator, went to Berry's home on Nov. 17, 1999, to interview him about an upcoming rally of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which Berry leads.

After the interview, Berry asked whether they intended to interview Thompson, a former Klansman who left Berry's organization and later denounced the Klan.

When Sells said they did, Berry said he didn't want to be part of the news story and demanded they give him the interview tapes, the lawsuit said. When they refused, the complaint said, Berry and several of his Klan followers locked and blocked the doors, refusing to allow Sells and Thiel to leave.

Berry spoke with the WHAS-TV news director, who promised not to air the interview without his permission, but he wouldn't allow them to leave without turning over the tapes. At this point, a fourth Klan follower entered the house, wielding a shotgun. When they still refused to give up the tapes, the man pumped the shotgun to further intimidate them, the lawsuit said.

Sells said during the October hearing that his stomach became upset, his heart began to beat rapidly and his palms began to sweat. He was scared that he and Thiel might be beaten and shot if they didn't comply, and he felt helpless at his inability to protect Thiel, Cosbey's findings of fact said. Thiel also believed she was going to be physically harmed.

They gave up the tapes and were allowed to leave after being held about 20 or 30 minutes, court records said.

Berry was arrested Nov. 10 in DeKalb County on charges of theft, conspiracy to commit criminal confinement with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit intimidation, conspiracy to commit robbery with a deadly weapon, and criminal mischief in connection with the case. Those charges are pending.

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