By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"John and I really hit it off," says Berger, whose smoke-stained Philly accent makes him sound as if he's proposing a toast at a Mafia wedding. "He was a good friend."
Along the rest of the wall are glossy shots of Norm with various casino entertainers -- Cher, Jackie Mason, Bette Midler -- or long-ago boxing champs like Jake LaMotta and Jersey Joe Walcott, or pool player Willie Mosconi. The 8-by-10 glossies date to the '80s and early '90s, and Berger was a lot heavier then. He's the big guy in the gray suit, with the Kent smoldering in his right hand.
Those who know Berger tout his skills as a first-rate actor, a convincing liar, a man of several eccentric talents, including the ability to pass himself off as a mob-connected man-about-Vegas. "First of all, I talk like a mobster," he says, his diction all soft d's and very few r's. But it's a certain sensibility -- rude and crude, yet funny and relaxed and worldly-wise -- that makes it convincing. It's the way he acts when, one recent afternoon, a woman in heavy makeup, with hair the color of black polyester and slot-machine eyes, lets herself into Norm's apartment while he's holding court at the table in his tiny dining alcove. "I'm busy here," he tells her gruffly. After she backs out the door, Norm turns and says wearily: "That broad drives me nuts. She thinks she's in love with me. I'm 70 fucking years old. I tell ya. I don't need that." I-don-need-dat.
Then he launches into another subchapter of his long and weird tale. It winds through his undercover salad days in the '80s, then the big case in '91 in which he helps bring down a Ponzi scheme into which unknowing investors pumped $100 million, maybe more. Then, how the same federal agents for whom he's working accuse him of scamming more than $100,000 in undercover proceeds, the resulting 47-count federal indictment for embezzlement and fraud, the 1995 trial, and the acquittal. All followed by his attempt -- the consuming center of his present existence -- to get someone to believe his impossible-to-believe story about how two government agents, several close friends, and other assorted parties conspired to set him up.
Although Norm would disagree, this last matter isn't what's so interesting about Norman B. Berger. What's harder to ignore is how a man who spent most of his life as a dressmaker and mild-mannered husband, a maker of finely detailed balsa-wood model airplanes, could convince some shrewd and dangerous Dallas criminals that he was a bloody-minded mobster who could launder millions of dollars with the help of certain associates in Jersey.
"It's more than acting," says former IRS criminal investigator Mack Garvin, for whom Berger worked on two cases. "He had connections back East, and he was able to hook up and get people to help him with his appearance, to be who he said he was, to look real. The average domestic Joe Blow couldn't do that."
Indeed, Berger had a genuine casino lifestyle and was at least drinking buddies with some real made men. In just six months while he was working for the government, he made 17 trips to Atlantic City and deposited more than $360,000 at the cashier's cage at the TropWorld, a pile of glass cubes along the boardwalk where Norm usually would check in at the VIP counter and be "comped" a $200-a-night suite. "Two bedrooms and a Jacuzzi in the living room," as Norm would describe it. One IRS agent who supervised Berger recalls his winning or losing "my annual salary" at the craps tables in a matter of hours.
Looking back on Berger's undercover career -- which in its last Texas phase included duping a Plano bookmaker, a drug dealer from Melissa, and a ring of Ponzi schemers from Irving -- even prosecutors who wanted to see him spend the rest of his life in a federal pen are a bit awed by what he accomplished. "I had the opportunity to watch him on videotape and audiotape, and he gave every impression of being in the mob. He was very effective that way. He had a real bent for that kind of talk and mannerism," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Webster, who heads the Dallas office's criminal division. Berger's reward for his last case, $50,000, remains one of the biggest informant fees Webster can recall being paid for such work.
A man with a flair for the dramatic and the quick-buck deal, Berger was convincing enough to fool Texans he was "mobbed up," but says he never got involved with investigating true Mafiosi. "Those guys didn't care what I was doing, as long as it didn't involve them," he says.