John Berkery, 5 Years On The Lam; Held Without Bail Pending Drug Trial

Posted: June 12, 1987

John C. Berkery, a man long regarded by law-enforcement officials as one of Philadelphia's most clever and fascinating criminals, was ordered held without bail yesterday pending a federal drug trial.

Berkery, 53, was captured by federal agents Monday after 5 1/2 years as a fugitive. He fled Philadelphia in January 1982, three days before his federal indictment on charges of dealing in methamphetamine and P-2-P, a chemical used in the manufacture of that drug.

Dressed in the casual clothing of a yachtsman, Berkery said nothing during a hearing yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Peter B. Scuderi, except to plead not guilty to the charges against him. Scuderi ordered him held without bail.

Louis R. Pichini, a prosecutor for the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force, said Berkery had traveled widely, changed names and appearances frequently, and continued drug dealing during his time as a fugitive.

Berkery was arrested near Newark International Airport by federal agents who were conducting a surveillance in connection with another P-2-P investigation.

Pichini said the investigation was focused on a load of 20 to 28 gallons of P-2-P purchased by Berkery's brother, Edward, in West Germany in April. Agents spotted both Berkery brothers in a Mercedes-Benz in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., while following the movements of the chemical. They followed the Mercedes to Newark and arrested John Berkery there. Edward Berkery was released. Pichini said yesterday a warrant now has been issued for Edward.

Pichini said John Berkery was using the alias John D. McCabe and had a Florida driver's license and a Colorado birth certificate in that name when he was taken into custody.

Pichini described Berkery as "a highly intelligent and seasoned criminal whose illegal activities span four decades." Law enforcement officials say Berkery has been a professional burglar, a drug dealer and an associate of top organized crime figures.

In the 1982 case, Pichini said, Berkery is accused of possessing 200 gallons of P-2-P, or phenyl-2-propanone - enough to produce 1,600 pounds of methamphetamine - and distributing 24 pounds of methamphetamine.

Berkery's co-defendant in the case, Raymond "Long John" Martorano, a high-ranking organized-crime figure, was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

During his time as a fugitive, Berkery was known to have gone to Ireland initially, but he apparently left there in 1984 after the United States and Ireland entered into an extradition treaty.

Pichini said an individual using the name John D. McCabe, Berkery's alias, entered the United States five times between November 1984 and December 1986 using Honolulu, San Francisco and Miami as some ports of entry.

At one point in 1984, Berkery wrote Pichini from Ireland seeking to return to Philadelphia and plead guilty to reduced charges in exchange for a three- year prison sentence.

In the letter, made public yesterday, Berkery lamented the discomforts of life on the lam in damp and chilly Ireland.

"I've been gone for the better part of three years, the equivalent of a five-year sentence, at my own expense, just to try to get a fair deal," Berkery wrote. "What is so wonderful about that? If the situation were reversed, being a prudent man, do you honestly believe you wouldn't have done the same thing? And at least you'd be in sunny Italy. Here I am with an umbrella and a hot-water bottle."

Pichini refused the deal Berkery suggested.

Berkery's criminal history dates to the early 1950s when he was a kingpin in a Kensington-based burglary ring known as the K&A Gang.

He was linked to a famous burglary in 1959 in which he and several others stole nearly $500,000 in cash from a safe in the home of Pottsville coal baron John Rich.

Two prospective witnesses were murdered and a third was shot in that case. Berkery was investigated in connection with the killings and the shooting, but he never was charged.

Berkery was convicted for the Pottsville burglary and served time in prison, but he later won a new trial and the charges eventually were dropped.

Berkery has a special mystique among many local law-enforcement officials. He is seen as having an uncanny combination of luck and smarts that has enabled him time and again to escape the clutches of the law. His manner is debonair. His signature is the witty line, the glib rejoinder.

"What are we proving?" Berkery asked Pichini in the 1984 letter. "I'm sure the crime rate didn't go down since I left. Be reasonable . . . Gimme a

break, Mr. P. I'm starting to feel like the poor man's Robert Vesco."

This time, officials say, Berkery will need more than luck and smarts to escape.

The evidence includes tape-recorded conversations with Ronald Raiton, a government informant who supplied the P-2-P to Martorano and, allegedly, to Berkery.

If convicted, Berkery faces a maximum penalty of 70 years in prison and a $210,000 fine.

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