Ex-Forest Lake firefighter is facing legal troubles again

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE
  • Star Tribune
  • March 21, 2012 - 11:51 PM

A former firefighter who served time for arson after a 2009 fire that engulfed more than 2.3 square miles of an Anoka County wildlife area has found himself in legal trouble again -- and again and again.

John Berken, 43, of Columbus, was charged in Ramsey County District Court this week with theft by swindle after he allegedly deposited $7,056 in worthless checks in a St. Paul-based account, then withdrew $4,850 before the bank clamped down on the transactions.

The felony charge is the latest of 12 criminal cases filed against Berken since last May, state court records show. The alleged offenses -- four involving theft-by-swindle claims -- are spread among four metro area counties. A charge alleging harassment has been dismissed.

Next week, Berken has been ordered back to jail for 30 days after a district judge ruled that he violated probation in the case of the April 2009 fire at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area.

The charges in that case accused Berken of starting the fire, then returning to battle the flames with 200 other firefighters. The fire took two days to extinguish and burned nearly 2,000 acres in Columbus. Last year, Berken entered an Alford plea that allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging there was sufficient evidence to convict him. Last March, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail.

Berken, who won a lifesaving award as a Forest Lake firefighter in 2006, had been beset with financial woes before the wildlife-area fire.

According to this week's charge, Berken opened a business checking account in October at Anchor Bank in St. Paul, then deposited checks from a second business account for which he was the only authorized signer. Later, the bank learned that the checks being deposited were from a closed account with a negative balance.

Twice, the charges say, Berken attempted to make withdrawals after Anchor Bank restricted his account. Both of the withdrawal attempts dragged on, the charges say, prompting Berken to leave and to claim both times that "he had to respond to a fire call."

An arrest warrant has been issued in the case.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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