Ex-Forest Lake firefighter heads to prison for swindles

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2012 - 8:55 PM

A former Forest Lake firefighter and auto dealer who served time for arson gets 45 months in prison in latest case.

A convicted arsonist will serve nearly four years in prison for swindling more than $100,000 from victims in the Twin Cities, according to the Ramsey County attorney's office.

John D. Berken Jr., 44, of Columbus, was sentenced Wednesday to 45 months in prison and ordered to pay $92,330 in restitution for thefts-by-swindle from June 1, 2011, through May 31, 2012.

Berken had been an award-winning volunteer firefighter in Forest Lake and an auto dealer involved in community activities. But with a 2009 arson arrest, his career as a criminal surfaced.

The offenses date back to 1991, with more than two dozen cases brought against him in at least five counties for swindles, forgery, domestic abuse and more, state court records show.

Berken made headlines in April 2009 after his arrest for setting a fire at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Anoka County. He had returned to battle the flames with 200 other firefighters, until he was arrested at the scene. The fire burned more than 2.3 square miles and took two days to extinguish.

Berken entered an Alford plea that allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that there was sufficient evidence to convict him. In March 2011, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail for the arson.

Last July, he was charged in Ramsey County District Court with three counts of theft by swindle.

Berken had opened checking accounts throughout the Twin Cities metro area by depositing checks from closed business accounts and withdrawing cash before the banks or credit unions realized that the deposited checks were from closed accounts, Prosecutor John Ristad, who specializes in fraud cases, alleged in a complaint.

Berken deposited numerous checks drawn on two closed accounts that had belonged to him: Attentive Marketing and Best Rate Merchant Services. Judge Gregg Johnson on Wednesday ordered Berken to return to court Nov. 21 for a restitution hearing for the $92,330.

Berken has pending charges in Washington and Anoka counties for nearly identical schemes, court papers say.

He is also set for trial Dec. 10 on two felony theft counts in Washington County. After pleading guilty Nov. 5 in Anoka County, he's to be sentenced there Jan. 8 for theft by false representation and issuing a bum check.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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