Author Interviews
9:09 am
Sat June 15, 2013

Family Tragedy With A Hollywood Connection In 'Run, Brother, Run'

Originally published on Sat June 15, 2013 4:40 pm

David Berg is a big-name Texas lawyer who founded his own firm and has won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's also been a civil rights activist and a Clarence Darrow-style defender of the damned: disgraced politicians, grungy protesters and celebrities.

But until now, with the release of his memoir, Run, Brother, Run, Berg has kept the most dramatic case of his life bottled up. He and his brother, Alan Berg, were separated at a young age when their parents divorced. They reconnected when Alan moved to Houston at age 16 after serving in the Navy. They grew closer and closer — until Alan was murdered in 1968. The accused killer was Charles Harrelson, and if that name sounds familiar, you may have heard of his son Woody, the actor. Berg talks to NPR's Scott Simon about his brother's untimely death and all that followed.


Interview Highlights

On how Alan was a salesman

"I would accompany him when he would go out to sell carpet. ... He and Dad were partners in that business. Once he talked himself into someone's home, he would sit down cross-legged on the floor and sit there. He would listen very intently to what the potential customer's objections were. Instead of running from them, he would say, 'You know, I know these are kind of hefty payments each month, but wouldn't you give up those cigarettes that you're smoking to make a dent in those payments if it would make a nicer home for your wife and kids?' ... There was just nobody he couldn't close."

On the last time they saw each other

"Alan came down [to my office] the very first day I got my furniture moved and settled into a cushion. He had a big box with him. He pulled out all kinds of gifts for me for my startup: reams of paper, a Donald Duck eraser and a lunch kit with Roy Rogers and Trigger on the side, and he held the lunch kit up and he said, 'David, let me ask you something ... don't you think Roy's looking at his horse a little oddly?' He would always do something for me. He would stuff cash into my hands. ... Hell, he taught my way into law school.

"At the end of the day he had leads to go out on ... carpet leads, appointments. And I saw him that night, he was leaning against his car. He had a chauffeur-driven car. He was Gatsbyesque, my brother. But this was not necessarily a tribute to his success. It was a tribute to his impatience. He had thousands of dollars in traffic tickets and lost his license. But he stood there in the sunlight with his sunglasses on and he told me he loved me and he was proud of me. And I told him thank you, that I loved him and I couldn't have done it without him. And then we never spoke again."

On what it was like in the weeks after Alan's disappearance

"It's very hard to explain except to say that when a loved one disappears you become detached from anything even remotely that could be described as a normal life. I couldn't take an unlabored breath. My father was so distraught he would throw up. He would bolt from the middle of sales discussions and just leave and look for my brother. So it was devastating. Finally, Dad hired a private investigator in Houston with a great reputation, Claude Harrelson ... and magically, within three days, Claude said, 'Your son has been murdered' and Dad told me everything began to spin.

"And as it turned out, he demanded $3,000 for information leading to Alan's remains and Dad said, 'Why $3,000? I've already posted a $5,000 reward,' and Claude Harrelson said, 'I don't know, I don't know who these people are, but if you let this get out, the murderer is gonna murder me.' ... As it turns out [Charles Harrelson, Claude's brother] not only murdered my brother ... but combined with Claude and one other man who was involved to shake Dad down for the reward."

On how the book focuses on the trial

"Charles Harrelson liked to have witnesses to his murders. It's something that somehow turned him on and excited him. Her name was Sandra Sue Attaway and without her testimony the case would crumble and go away. They had a common-law marriage and what that meant was that the jury had to disregard her testimony if they believed there was a common-law marriage."

On why his brother was murdered

"There was a business dispute with a former employee of my father and my brother. This former employee went into the same business, carpet sales, in Houston, and Dad tried to run him out of business. There was evidence that he paid Harrelson $1,500 to kill my brother. Once Harrelson was acquitted under Texas law, then this particular man could not be guilty of having hired Harrelson to kill my brother. So he never served."

On the connection to actor Woody Harrelson

"[He] has inserted himself into the story because over the years he has attempted, if not to heroize his dad — and some of the things Woody Harrelson has said seemed to me to be insensitive — in trying to legitimize his dad — to the survivors of the many men Charles Harrelson murdered. The Texas Rangers think maybe as [many] as 20. I understand sticking up for your dad, but do it quietly."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now to a murder case that dates back more than four decades. David Berg is a big name Texas lawyer, founded his own firm and argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's also been a civil rights activist and a Clarence Darrow-style defender of the damned, left and right, disgraced politicians, grungy protesters and Texas celebs.

David Berg may have been keeping his most dramatic case and story bottled up in his heart. David Berg's brother, Alan Berg, was murdered in Houston in 1968. He was 31 years old. Years later, the accused killer's son would become a household name. David Berg's intense, involving and personal memoire is called "Run Brother Run." Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID BERG: Thank-you for having me on.

SIMON: You and your brother must have grown up separately after your parents divorced, but you wound up being close, didn't you?

BERG: Yes we did. Our childhood, early childhoods rarely overlapped. Our parents, when they separated, divvied us up. Alan went with my father and I went with Mom. And then when I was 16 years old, he came home from the Navy to Houston and from that point forward we became close and closer.

SIMON: Your brother, whatever some of his drawbacks, which we'll talk about, was apparently a hell of a salesman?

BERG: He could sell anything to anyone. And I would accompany him when he would go out to sell carpet.

SIMON: Your father had a carpet company?

BERG: Yeah, and he and Dad were partners in that business. Once he talked his way into someone's home, he would sit down cross-legged on the floor and sit there. He would listen very intently to what the potential customers' objections were. Instead of running from them, he would say, you know, I know these are kind of hefty payments each month, but wouldn't you give up those cigarettes that you're smoking to make a dent in those payments if it would make a nicer home for your wife and kids?

And he - there was just nobody he couldn't close.

SIMON: Did have a gambling problem, didn't he?

BERG: He did. Alan had developed a great skill at running crap games. That started when he was about 10 or 11 in New Orleans when he lived down there with Dad. And that developed into a bad gambling habit of his own, especially the year that he died.

SIMON: Tell us about, I gather, one of the last times, if not the last time, you saw each other, and that's a meeting in your first law office.

BERG: Alan came down the very first day I got my furniture moved in and settled into a cushion. He had a big box with him. He pulled out all kinds of gifts for me for my startup; reams of paper, a Donald Duck eraser, and a lunch kit with - he would always do something for me. He would stuff cash into my hands; he would - hell, he talked my way into law school.

And at the end of the day he had leads to go out on.

SIMON: Carpet leads.

BERG: Yes, carpet leads, appointments. And I saw him that night. He was leaning against his car. He stood there and he told me he loved me and he was proud of me and I told him that I loved him and I couldn't have done it without him. And then we never spoke again.

SIMON: Tuesday, May 28, your brother didn't come home.

BERG: No.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of what life was like for your family in the weeks that follow?

BERG: It's very hard to explain except to say that when a loved one disappears, you become detached from anything even remotely that could be described as a normal life. I couldn't take an unlabored breath. My father was so distraught. He would throw up. He would bolt from the middle of sales discussions and just leave and look for my brother.

So it was devastating. Finally Dad hired a private investigator in Houston with a great reputation, Claude Harrelson.

SIMON: Claude Harrelson. Let's remember that last name.

BERG: And magically, within three days, Claude said your son has been murdered. And Dad told me everything began to spin. And as it turned out, he demanded $3,000 for information leading to Alan's remains and Dad said why $3,000? I've already posted a $5,000 reward. And Claude Harrelson said, I don't know. I don't know who these people are but if you let this get out, the murderer is going to murder me.

SIMON: And to tie this up a bit, the man who was within quick order charged with the murder, incredibly enough turned out to be Claude Harrelson's brother.

BERG: Charles Harrelson. As it turns out, he not only murdered my brother, did Charles, but combined with Claude and one other man who was involved, to shake Dad down for the reward.

SIMON: Much of this book is devoted to your replay of the trial. You say in this book, "If I were on that jury," I'm quoting you. "If I were on that jury, I would have had to vote for acquittal too."

BERG: Absolutely. Charles Harrelson liked to have witnesses to his murders. It's something that somehow turned him on and excited him. Her name was Sandra Sue Attaway and without her testimony the case would crumble and go away. They had a common law marriage and what that meant was that the jury had to disregard her testimony if they believed there was a common law marriage.

And without...

SIMON: Because a wife cannot testify against her husband.

BERG: Exactly.

SIMON: Do you know to this day where your brother was murdered?

BERG: I do, but I have some doubts too. There was a business dispute with a former employee of my father and my brother. This former employee went into the same business, carpet sales, in Houston and Dad tried to run him out of the business. There was evidence that he paid Harrelson $1500 to kill my brother.

Once Harrelson was acquitted under Texas law, then this particular man could not be guilty of having hired Harrelson to kill my brother. So he never served.

SIMON: Let's roll this story forward a number of years. Gets to be 1993. You and your wife go to a Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Who ends up sitting next to you?

BERG: Woody Harrelson.

SIMON: And to be clear, this is Woody Harrelson, the actor.

BERG: That's right.

SIMON: And maybe we should pause to explain here. This is Chuck Harrelson's son.

BERG: Who has inserted himself into the story because over the years he has attempted if not to heroize his Dad, to legitimize him. And some of the things Woody Harrelson has said seemed to me to be insensitive in trying to legitimize his Dad to the survivors of many men Charles Harrelson murdered.

The Texas Ranger think maybe as much as 20. I understand sticking up for your Dad, but do it quietly.

SIMON: David Berg, his new book "Run Brother, Run: A Memoire of a Murder in My Family." Thanks so much for being with us.

BERG: Well, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.