John Berken, a Forest Lake guy with felony convictions for forging checks and theft, seemed like he'd really turned his life around. He'd even morphed into the ultimate hero: a volunteer firefighter. Everything seemed to be going great.
Until he set a wildlife refuge on fire last year.[jump]
"His vehicle was seen shooting a Roman candle into a ditch," says Paul Sommer, spokesman for the Anoka County Sheriff's Department.
This week, things got worse when Berken's name came up in connection with a credit card scam preying on local businesses.
Berken was the salesman for Northern Leasing Systems, a company offering free credit card machines and reduced transaction fees. Berken sold the package to Rebel Ink, Baby, a baby apparel shop in St. Paul that sells "I'm pooping right now" and "Got Mammaries?" onesies.
Instead of a sweet deal, the store owner got a four-page contract ordering him to pay $9,000 over four years. The whole mess fits right in with the portrait of a freewheeling wildman that Anoka investigators collected in their arson case. The year before the arson, Berken was accused of some shady dealings at his Forest Lake Ford dealership.
"Apparently he's quite a character," Sommer says. "He used to own a car dealership, and his employees would say that he was kind of a tyrant.
"The talk at the time is when he was a Ford dealer he was crooked, and his dealership did a lot of questionable things. He would stand on the roof of his building, and his employees say he would shoot paint-balls at them. That's what people told us. That was kind of his reputation at the time, but we didn't investigate it."
Berken is scheduled to go on trial for arson in January.