By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Norm's an interesting character," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Jarrett, who led the prosecution of Berger for allegedly ripping off the government. "The case I tried against him, and the whole circumstances around it, these were some of the wildest things I've ever seen up here. It was a crazy case."
Indeed, Berger's story of deception and double-crossing, hookers and mob molls, faux wiseguys and sacks of cash make up a crazy story, one untold until now. But as one comes to learn, Norm studied the art of fixing dice and stacked decks from a couple of Philly guys with movie-character names like "The Donkey" and "Coco Joe." With this guy, nothing is quite as it appears.
Norm and his second wife, Kathleen, arrived in Dallas in 1980, moving from Cleveland, and a decade before, Philadelphia. They had sold a small business in northeast Ohio, a company that made balsa-wood model airplanes, exacting replicas of World War II fighters and the like, some so detailed that they ended up being used in movie and TV productions, including Baa Baa Black Sheep, a late-'70s series about a fighter squadron. Norm moved to Texas to get back into the clothing business, his lifelong career. "I was working for this company, designing a line of raincoats," he says. "It was a good job. I got bonuses and commissions -- the whole bit."
The Bergers bought a middle-class tract house in Plano and went about life in a most domestic fashion. "As far as I know, Norm went to his job. He liked to gamble a little, but there was nothing out of the ordinary in his life," recalls Kathleen Berger, who was married to Norm for 24 years. "He put in linoleum and planted flowers in the beds and painted and wallpapered and decorated the house...Then the government arrived."
Kathleen Berger says a big change came over her husband in 1984, after the birth of their son. "There started all this rough language on the phone, door-slamming, and loud, scary conversations. He was scary. I didn't realize it was an act, because he didn't tell me it was an act," she says.
Unknown to Berger's wife, but confirmed in a memo from the head of the IRS criminal-investigation division in Dallas, Berger had become a "numbered informant," CI 7585, assigned to the case of Winford J. Brown, an alleged bookmaker. In all investigators' notes and other IRS files, Berger is referred to only by his number, which is used to maintain secrecy and confidentiality.
Berger had been introduced to the IRS by an FBI agent he had known for many years, and he was happy to get into the action as the bookmaker's partner, becoming more than just a dime-dropping provider of information. Berger says he played similar roles in some long-ago investigations in Cleveland and Philadelphia, although those earlier activities could not be confirmed and Berger offers few details.
Just like the sworn undercover agents working for the agency full-time, Berger assumed a role and developed an ongoing relationship with his marks, his "targets" in fedspeak. Through a card game with the bookmaker, Norm met Kenneth C. Strickland, who eventually was indicted in absentia on major drug dealing and tax-evasion charges. Strickland happened to live next door to Norm's bookmaking partner in rural Melissa, north of McKinney, and when Strickland paid off a poker debt with $18,000 in cash bundles tied at the ends with rubber bands, Norm correctly concluded he was in the drug business. Before long, he had Strickland convinced he could help him launder more than $100,000 a week by opening up a bogus check-cashing business, buying checks in bulk from a friend in a for-real check-cashing company, and cashing the real checks.
Berger learned a few fundamentals about money scams, as well as gambling and other vices, growing up in Boston. His gang of would-be Jewish toughs, the Pharaohs, used to play craps under the streetlights, he recalls. One old pal, Burton "Chico" Krantz, became a notorious Boston bookmaker who ended up as a key government witness against leaders of the mob in New England to whom he was forced to pay "rent," or protection money. Berger got a bit more of his education from people he met in Philadelphia, where he went to work in the '50s as a reserve police officer and later a patternmaker in the clothing business. Around his 60th Street neighborhood he ran into various loan sharks, gamblers, and mobsters and learned some of the tricks of cheating at cards -- "card mechanics."
Kathleen Berger says Norm learned a lot about mobsters the same way everyone else does -- at the movies. "Let's just say he watched Goodfellas more than once," she says, referring to Martin Scorsese's raw 1990 look at a young man growing up in La Cosa Nostra. When Norm explains how mobsters don't talk so openly about whacking the competition, one has a vague recollection of having heard it somewhere before. "Mob people don't threaten directly. They say, 'It's out of my hands,' which means that's the end of that." Dat's the enna dat. And when Norm uses "fuck" six times in a sentence, he sounds as if he's been taking vocabulary lessons from Joe Pesci.