Alan Berg (1934–84) was an outspoken Denver radio broadcaster in the 1970s and 1980s known for his unapologetic attacks on the far right, religious extremism, and white supremacy. At the time of his assassination by the white supremacist group The Order in 1984, Berg was one of Denver’s most popular radio voices.
Alan Berg was born in Chicago in 1934, the son of a Jewish dentist and a clothing shop manager. As a youngster, he had bright red hair and a temper to match. His hobbies were golf, stamp collecting, and photography. At age seventeen he went off to college at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he was happy to be away from his father, whom he viewed as a hypocritical anti-Semite. After two years in Boulder, Berg transferred to the University of Denver, then the University of Miami in Florida, DePaul University in Chicago, Northwestern University, and then back to DePaul, finally graduating from its law school. In 1958 he married Judy Halpern of Denver, and the couple settled in Chicago, where he practiced law. Berg was an able and successful criminal defense lawyer, and his affable glibness in front of juries served him well.
Berg began experiencing epileptic-like grand mal seizures, surviving all of them but often experiencing depression. He discovered that martinis calmed him down and soothed the anxieties he could not otherwise get rid of. He eventually abandoned his law practice and he and Judy moved back to Denver, where he entered St. Joseph Hospital to dry out. Berg opened his own clothing shop, the Shirt Broker, in Seventeenth Street’s Albany Hotel.
A friend of Berg’s, Larry Gross, had a talk show on KGMC radio in Englewood. As Berg was such a good talker, Gross invited him behind the microphone. KGMC was so small compared to behemoth stations like KOA that it took a while for the curmudgeonly and opinionated Berg to catch on. But he soon began to work at the radio station in scheduled shifts.
In his first days at KGMC, Berg’s words were gentle, but they became more emboldened and controversial as he accustomed himself to the radio business. This did not reflect Berg’s true puppy-dog personality. The abrasiveness was merely his shtick, and it was quite often very humorous. People started to tune in just to see what Berg would say next. By 1975 he and Judy had divorced. Judy returned to Chicago, and he had a series of paramours. Brain surgery had eliminated his seizures, and his hair grew long to cover the scars. He grew a scraggly beard, and his fuzzy countenance would become one of his trademarks.
The cessation of seizures and his sobriety should have calmed Berg, but by now he understood the broadcast business and knew that the more rude and argumentative he became, the higher his ratings would be. In 1977 Berg joined KHOW, a more powerful station than KGMC, and his cantankerous ways reached new heights—he insulted listeners, shouted put-downs, cocked an index finger toward the ceiling, flicked Pall Mall butts around the control room, and hung up on callers. There, two years later, a poll adjudged him to be both the most disliked and the most popular radio host in town.
At one point, local Ku Klux Klan leader Fred Wilkins walked into the studio and told Berg that he “was going to die.” Questioned by the police, Wilkins explained that the statement had been a scare tactic and not a threat, and the episode was soon forgotten.
Transfer to KOA
Berg’s popularity and the controversies he generated were not lost on management at KOA, then the most influential Denver radio outlet. Although rudeness had not been particularly tolerated on the station before, KOA hired Berg on February 23, 1981, to fill a prime afternoon slot. The deal allowed Berg to say anything he pleased, but now that he was happier with his place in life and his accomplishments, he began to change. He was still provocative, but his discordant mannerisms were disappearing and his humor was developing.
Berg often characterized talk radio as the final vestige of old-fashioned conversation over a back fence. At KOA, all parts of Berg deepened, including his knowledge of Judaism, and it was a topic open for discussion with callers. He would often lambast anti-Semites, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other right wingers. On June 15, 1983, Berg’s program jumped from topic to topic, from the Holocaust to Christianity to Israel. Unbeknownst to Berg, one of the callers was David Lane of suburban Aurora, a Klan sympathizer and white supremacist. Lane and his like-minded friends called themselves The Order and often listened to Berg’s program to discern his ethnic beliefs.
In early June of the next year, The Order members Randy Duey, Robert Jay Mathews, Denver Parmenter, Bruce Pierce, Richard Scutari, and Gary Yarbrough, met in Boise, Idaho, to plan the assassinations of individuals they disagreed with. Four targets were discussed: television producer Norman Lear, civil rights attorney Morris Dees, desegregationist federal district judge Wayne Justice, and Berg. Shortly thereafter, Mathews and Scutari headed toward Colorado. They knew many of Berg’s habits: the kind of cars he drove, when he left for work and returned home, his address on Adams Street, and which restaurants he frequented. Meanwhile, Pierce and Lane checked into a Denver motel. On the evening of June 18, 1984, all four were positioned around Berg’s house at 1445 Adams Street. Mathews and Scutari flanked the apartment unit; Lane was in the getaway car and Pierce held a .45 MAC-10 machine pistol equipped with a silencer.
As the members of The Order waited, Berg dined with his ex-wife, Judy, who was in town from Chicago visiting her parents. After dinner he dropped her off at her car and drove to his apartment. At 9:45 pm Berg opened the car door and was sprayed with gunfire. He fell dead on his driveway with thirty-four bullet wounds. The Order members split up and left Denver, with each assassin driving away in a different direction.
The Order was surprised that the Berg killing had stirred up so much news interest. The story received prominent display in the news media, and the assassination of a media personality for racial reasons was just enough to pique the interest of federal authorities. Despite splitting into separate cells, The Order could not shake the FBI’s pursuit. Yarbrough was arrested. FBI agents in Portland, Oregon, had a shootout with Mathews, who managed to escape. In the first week of December, FBI agents cornered Mathews in a Washington seaside house, which caught fire when a helicopter dropped illumination flares on the roof and ignited hundreds of rounds of stored ammunition. A mortally wounded Mathews sprayed the burning walls with gunfire as the ceiling caved in on him.
By March 1985, nine full months after Berg’s assassination, fifteen members of various Aryan groups had been caught, but three of the four Berg assassins were still at large: Scutari, Lane, and triggerman Pierce. The FBI tracked Pierce to Rossville, Georgia, where they arrested him as he attempted to pick up a letter. Lane had been traveling around the country since the murder. By March, he was residing in a shack with no electricity or running water near Charity, Virginia. On March 29, six FBI agents arrested Lane outside of a supermarket in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The last of the four Berg suspects, Scutari, was arrested in March 1986, in San Antonio, Texas, where he had been working in an auto body shop.
The federal government charged The Order members under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute (aka RICO), an umbrella law that covered crimes such as robbery, arson, murder, wire fraud, and loan sharking. After four months of trials, all those indicted were convicted; Pierce received a 100-year sentence, Scutari 60 years, and Lane 40 years.
Adapted from Clark Secrest, “The Last Back Fence in Town: The Assassination of Alan Berg,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 19, no. 1 (1999).