HE IS LESS PUDGY now than he was in the photograph on his wanted poster. Worrying, he says, helped him lose about sixty pounds in the last couple of years. Until recently his face was covered with scraggly hair, a beard that he hated and that probably fooled no one. "May have full beard," part of the poster read.
Frank Martin Berick never saw that wanted poster. Three years ago he left Washington in a hurry, running scared, afraid for thirty-one months to enter a post office (where he knew his photograph was displayed), frightened of mailmen everywhere who, he felt sure, had fixed his picture in their minds before beginning their daily rounds.
Berick's background was hardly that of a crook or con man.Berick was ordinary, a middle-aged, middle-class Florida native who was ill-prepared to become a fugitive. But in 1973 he failed to come through with a promised charter flight to Copenhagen for eleven residents of the Washington-Baltimore area. He also failed to come through with refunds, which is why, several months later, he was indicted for using the mails to defraud people. Berick's offense was hardly a footnote in the annals of local crime, and it is doubtful that anyone was very concerned about his flight to avoid prosecution except the eleven people who each lost $400. And the postal investigators who like to wrap up these matters neatly.
For a moment, when Berick chose to run instead of facing the government's charges, he may have tempted himself with the fantasy of the working class: how different it would be, we tell ourselves, if would shed our psychic baggage and begin life again in a different place with a different name.
But before he turned himself in earlier this year - weary, exhausted, depressed about the death of a father he could not visit - Berick gave lie to those daydreams. Despite our private scenarios, our escapist fantasies, to run from the law is to live a quiet, personal kind of terror.
At age 42, when many of his peers began enjoying career peaks, Berick began learning the rules of running.
"You pick out one-way streets," he said. "Walk with your back to the traffic. Look for empty streets - it's easier to tell if someone is following you. Keep off the bus because cops can ride them for free.At a party, learn where every exit is."
By late 1976, after two years of life as a fugitive, Berick had made an empty apartment in Queens, New York, his temporary home. Despite his best efforts, he was a conspicuous figure in the residential community, a man who walked his dog in the fall afternoons when most men were at work. He ventured outise only for the dog's sake. Sometimes he would walk a couple of blocks for cigarettes. His nervous eyes would ricochet around the store, scan the parking lot of his apartment complex and squint into the dim apartment loddy before he walked briskly into the graffiti-covered elevator that would return him to his desolate sanctuary.
For several weeks the hallways and sidewalks of his apartment complex were piled high with trash because of a strike by the garbage collection service. The strike was good news for Berick. He was several months behind in rent payments, and the building's management thought the apartment was vacant. Distracted by the garbage crisis, the landlord had found no time to begin cleaning the vacant apartment for re-renting. Berick worried that when the trash went, so would he.
By day Berick read books. At night he waited for sleep to come in the dark of the empty apartment, listening to the breathing of his German shepherd next to him on the floor, turning the dial of his radio when each late-night, clear-channel talk show would fade into static. For awhile he had a roommate, but then, when the roommate moved out, Berick was left with a couple of disconnected telephones and a refrigerator that held a can of tomato juice, some moldy bread and an unpeeled onion. The windows had no shades, and the bright morning sun made the apartment - with its scarred walls where pictures had hung, and the rolls of dust on its parquet floors - appear as desolate as the Gobi Desert.
Only the fear of being discovered took the edge off Berick's boredom. But it did not diminish the loneliness. With occasional exceptions, it is not wise for a fugitive to cultivate friends. Friends ask questions, and flimsy cover stories must eventually disintegrate. So Berick lived a peculiar kind of desperation; he was only a phone call and a Greyhound bus ride away from his former life in Washington, but he lived as if in a prison.
"I constantly have butterflies," he said. "No pain, just fear pain."
Life wasn't always like that for Frank Berick. He was blessed with an indulgent father, a Miami Beach attorney who hoped his son would also choose the law as his profession. His father was a deeply religous man who helped establish Miami Beach's frist synagogue. He was also a perfectionist, the kind of careful person who believed in laying out the next day's clothes before he went to sleep at night; his son worked hard, perhaps unconsciously, to be just the opposite.
"I was stubborn and decided not to study law because I had the feeling if I did, my father would know exactly what I was doing, why I was doing it, always pointing out mistakes," Berick recalled. That traditional rivalry between father and son, the primal testing of wills between generations, did not resolve itself in the Berick household. The son spent the first fifteen years of his adult life sailing, sporadically going to college, taking computer courses, serving in the Army, working construction, nothing, in short, that quite provided him the basis for either a career or fortune.
He arrived in Washington in September of 1969 to begin a job with a suburban Virginia computer firm, a position that lasted until Christmas when his employer lost several government contracts. But that job, like others before it, served only as a holding pattern for Berick. What he really yearned for was a coup, a stroke of luck that would put him over the top in life. In 1973 he thought he had found it: after a charter vacation flight to Amsterdam, Berick decided the charter travel business was an industry that could satisfy his yen for quick success.
In the early 1970s the air charter business was plagued by fast-buck operators as well as a dizzying array of complicated federal regulations governing low-cost charters. The margin for profit in the business was razor-thin and though Berick did not know it, he was entering a precarious profession.
A proposed flight to the Bahamas failed. So did a trip to Kenya. With the help of shaky travel clubs, Berick quickly lost about $4000. Finally a trip to Spain clicked. So did a second. In Spain, Berick met a real estate dealer who suggested he couple his trips with the selling of vacation condominiums. Berick and a partner managed to sell about a dozen units before a quarrel broke up their fledgling partnership.
Then Berick got wind of a Major Deal. Along with a couple of partners Berick hoped to sell a Spanish land package to a group of investors interested in building a condominium. Berick's anticipated reward: a finder's fee of $50,000.
As he began packaging his Major Deal in the summer of 1973, Berick also began soliciting under the name of the Pyrenees Club for passengers to take a vacation charter flight to Copenhagen. He contracted with a travel broker for 194 seats aboard an SAS jet.
Only eleven people sent in checks for the trip to Copenhagen, nowhere near enough to fly the plane at a profit. But instead of returning his customers' checks, Berick deposited them and became a difficult man to reach by telephone. And he spent the money meant for the Scandinavian trip to finance a last-minute flight to Spain he was certain would clinch his land sale deal.
In February and April of 1974 Berick answered questions put to him by a postal investigator. He argued that devaluation of the dollar had forced him to cancel what would have been an unprofitable charter. He said he was a bad businessman but vowed his condominium project would permit him to repay the individuals he had stung. In June a grand jury indicted Berick on eleven counts of mail fraud. Berick learned the news when he called the attorney who had been present when he was questioned by the postal investigator.
"You're indicted," the attorney told him. "Do you have $2500?"
"No," Berick said.
The attorney suggested he located a public defender, an idea that only heightened Berick's rising panic. He recalled something the postal investigator had said: turn yourself in and you'll "only get a slap." Berick didn't believe him. He crammed some personal belongings in the back of his 1971 Impala and sped away from Washington, heading north, visions of jail racing through his mind.
"I slept the first night in my car at some state park campground near College Park," Berick recalled. "Just me and the mosquitoes. I decided the only thing was to try to run and hope the Spanish thing went through so I'd have the money to defend myself."
It was a bad decision. The condo deal was never consummated and Berick found himself broke, homeless and in trouble with the federal government.
Movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and fugitives as famous as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rudd and Patricia Hearst have made living underground seem glamorous. Hoffman has granted sly interviews to the media and thumbed his nose at the FBI. During her SLA months, Hearst schooled herself in revolutionary thought and criss-crossed the country with friends. A durable network of comrades provide shelter and food for radicals-on-the-run. But there is no equivalent group ready to aid a fugitive who stumbled while seeking wealth in the charter tour business.
After the College Park campground, Berick drove to New York, where he tried desperately to complete the condo deal. His plan: to return to Washington flush with money for a legal defense and repayment of his bad debts.
In New York, Berick took to buying a jar of peanut butter, some crackers and a can of soda for a feast while he lived in his car parked in the lot of a Holiday Inn. Sometimes Berick would make a sandwich with rice from a carry-out restaurant, mixing in onion and catsup to provide contrast and color; if he could afford it, he would buy bread and garlic to flavor his starch sandwich. From the motel he obtained free ice. He showered a couple of times a week in locker rooms at Hofstra College, where the New York Jets held their summer camp.
Gradually he realized the condo project was doomed, so he decided to start a new life in New York, moving in with a man who befriended him and who would be one of the few people to know he was running from the law.
"I thought I'd fit into a regular life pattern," Berick recalled, "but then I found out I couldn't because I just couldn't use my right name to get a job."
So he went to a temporary job - hiring hall, a haven for men who aren't anxious to discuss their past or give a Social Security number. For $1.80 an hour Berick mowed lawns and mopped floors. He told people he was a Harvard medical student ("might as well pick the best," he said) earning cash between semesters.
"If [a fugitive] examines the problem of who he is, something everyone does in introspective periods, the problem only gets magnified," Abbie Hoffman once wrote. It took Berick several months to realize his identity was slipping away from him. He could not communicate with his family or old friends for fear of placing them in legal jeopardy. When he was mopping warehouse floors or selling pretzels outside Shea Stadium, it didn't really matter if he told people he was a medical student between semesters; no one much cared.
His paranoia was, of course, out of proportion to his crime. Once, while working in a paper products factory, Berick was approached by a man who flashed a police badge. Berick's knees went weak until the officer told him he was soliciting for a police picnic and he wanted the company to donate some paper plates and cups.
At another time, Berick claims he spent the night with a woman in the apartment above his. The following morning Berick says he awoke to find her dressed in a police uniform.
"You going to a Halloween party?" he managed to ask with a small smile.
"No," the woman replied, "I'm going to work."
Berick's new love was a prison guard. Several days later, paranoia peaking, he booked a seat on a charter flight to Belgium.
Berick says he experienced no difficulty traveling across borders. Because he still had his passport, he slipped onto the Belgium charter easily; he once returned to the United States by flying into Canada and taking a bus across the American border, thereby avoiding U.S. Customs computers.
In Brussels, Berick for the first time found a modest measure of tranquility. He got a job driving a beer truck and fell into the pleasant company of some people he had known during his Spanish condominium - selling days. He moved in with an aspiring actress and pondered his future, desperately hoping a book about lie on the lam could provide him the money necessary to launch a legal defense. But the words did not come smoothly and his girl friend would return from filming to find Berick depressed about his inability to commit his life to paper.
During the next two years he returned to the United States twice as crew member aboard a sailboat purchased by a European acquaintance. On the high seas Berick was a man without a country and without a crime. His level of terror - a paranoia that had reached such proportions he worried Interpol agents were scouring Europe for him - subsided and he relaxed in the sun as he piloted the boat to Bermuda and up the East Coast from South Carolina. Berick would change the boat's foreign flag and numbers so he could cruise into an American harbor as casually as if he had come from a neighboring port.
Once back in the United States, Berick began worrying again: Was going on shore too dangerous? What if he took ill? His family had a history of diabetes - where would he turn for help and what name could be use?
In the summer of 1976 he made a stab at selling his life's story to a publisher. It was a long shot, but long shots were the story of Berick's life. A phone call to his sister in Florida brought him the news that his father was dying and a cold request not to telephone his mother - it was clear to Berick he was persona non grata to his family. When news of his father's death reached him, Berick knew he was finished running. He decided he owed it to his father, the person he felt he had most disappointed in his life, to come clean and resolve his legal difficulties. He put his dog on a leash, left the empty Queens apartment and walked two blocks to a pay phone. He dropped in a dime and asked a friend in Washington to suggest an attorney willing to take his case. Once the legal and penal system took over, Berick didn't have to life a finger.
A Baltimore attorney who had worked in the prosecutor's office, James Kramon, agreed to arrange for Berick's surrender shortly before Christmas. With bond at $10,000 Berick sat in Baltimore's city jail until his March trial, acquiring a scar above one eye, the result of a prison scuffle with two inmates who didn't bother asking when they wanted some of Berick's cigarettes.
The prosecutor told the jury of eight women and four men that Berick was a "dabbler in international travel who wanted to bolster his image" and had deliberately set out to swindle eleven people. Kramon argued Berick was a novice at charter travel who made eleven stupid mistakes. The judge ruled there would be no mention of Berick's flight to avoid prosecution, so it was not a factor in the jury's deliberations. During the trial Berick did not testify on his behalf; he sat at the defense table, looking every bit the frightened, middle-class fugitive he was, a man who ordered a suit that came back four sizes too large and who knew he looked silly. Two years of running had not given him the look of a street-savvy crook.
In March he was acquitted of ten of the eleveen counts of mail fraud and sentenced to six months in jail, with credit for time served awaiting trial.
By June he was out of prison. In Washington a postal investigator printed the word "APPREHENDED" in black type across Frank Martin Berick's wanted poster.
As of this writing, Frank Berick is making his living painting a synagogue in Silver Spring.