The highs — and now lows — for John Berken

499flford.jpgThere was a time, not too long ago, when John Berken could do little wrong in Forest Lake.

He was an active community member, a dedicated volunteer, a generous business owner and someone who expressed a desire to help make the community better.

John Berken, as the owner of Forest Lake Ford, is pictured in 2005 with the Ford F350 pickup that he donated to the Forest Lake Fire & Rescue. It was one of two vehicles that Berken donated to the department.

(Forest Lake Times File Photo)

Cliff Buchan
News Editor

There was a time, not too long ago, when John Berken could do little wrong in Forest Lake.

He was an active community member, a dedicated volunteer, a generous business owner and someone who expressed a desire to help make the community better.

“He was a good guy,”  said Gary Sigfrinius, the Forest Lake fire chief, who like many here, saw the positives that Berken was bringing to Forest Lake.

But now Sigfrinius is among those who can only wonder about Berken who has been a Forest Lake volunteer firefighter since February of 2005.

Berken, who will be 41 on Tuesday, April 21, stands charged in Anoka County with felony arson in connection with a wildfire in Columbus on April 6 that burned 1500 acres and threatened 30 homes. Some 30 fire departments and 200 volunteers fought that blaze.

One of the 200 was Berken who was taken away from the fire line in handcuffs based on witness information that led county police to charge Berken with starting that fire by shooting a roman candle from his vehicle.

The highs

Berken’s apparent fall from grace last week came in sharp contrast to the earlier John Berken that the community came to know.

Berken was just 31 when he joined Lee Kemp’s Forest Lake Ford in 1999. He became co-owner five years later and sole owner in 2005 after Kemp left the dealership.

“Without the community, I would not have a business here,” Berken told the Forest Lake Times in March of 2006. “I don’t take the community for granted and I give back as much as I can with the time and money that I can.”

And give back he did.

During one period in the spring of 2006, Berken estimated that he had donated $200,000 to community causes.

The donations included two Ford trucks for the fire department — a Ford Ranger pickup and a 2005 Ford F350 that was converted to fight brush fires. The F350 was a $61,000 donation when the cost of the truck, the painting, lettering and some equipment was added.

But other groups also benefitted from Berken’s generous ways.

In 2005, he donated $3000 to help keep ISD 831’s Community Education Teen Center open. In 2006. he became a member of the Youth Service Bureau’s $1000 Plus Club with a $2500 donation.

His school benevolence went even further. Over a two-year period he donated nine $250 scholarships to college bound high school seniors. In 2005, he donated $8835 to Community Education for the purchase of summer program youth T-shirts, a move designed to free other school dollars for needed equipment.

Berken’s actions did not go unnoticed.

He was honored with plaques from the Youth Service Bureau and the city of Forest Lake for his major contributions to the fire department.

In 2006, the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce named Forest Lake Ford its business of the year.

“I’ve made a commitment to give back to the community,” Berken told the newspaper in 2006. “I hope the community will give me a chance to earn their business.”

The lows

The filing of criminal charges in Anoka County last week was a new low point for Berken, but not the first time he has been on the wrong side of the law.

In 1991, Berken spent 20 months in prison after being convicted of check forgery, theft and a federal offense that involved making terroristic threats. By the time he arrived in Forest Lake some eight years later, he seemed to  have put that life behind, sources for this story said.

Former Mayor Terry Smith, the public official who was involved in the decision to allow Berken to join the fire department in 2005, was among those who saw the good in Berken.

“He (Berken) gave every indication that he had turned his life around,” Smith said.

Sigfrinius said he believed Berken’s desire to be on the fire department  was in part to offer service to the community and belong to a local organization.

For his first three years on the department, Sigfrinius said Berken was an active member with good attendance at required meetings and training sessions.

“He was an excellent firefighter,” the chief said of Berken, describing him as “well-trained and disciplined.”

But over a six-month period in late 2008, Sigfrinius said he noticed a change of attitude in Berken. He began to miss required training sessions and meetings. Berken had been reprimanded for “lack of participation,” the chief said.

The change in attitude came as Berken went through difficult personal and business times, Sigfrinius said.

In April of last year Forest Lake Ford locked its door. Berken had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization two months earlier and was en snarled in a financial dispute with American Express.

American Express had taken steps in court to freeze $4 million in assets and property of Forest Lake Ford, alleging that the company used an American Express charge card in 2007 to obtain just over $4 million in cash and had failed to repay more than $3.8 million.

Also last year, Berken was involved for a short time in the operation of the Little Cafe, now the Jelly Jar Cafe, in downtown Forest Lake. Berken was not directly involved in ownership as the business was in the name of a friend, Stephanie Witman, who ran the cafe from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 of last year.

Sigfrinius would not speculate on what may have driven Berken to allegedly start a fire. “He drifted away from the fire department,” the chief said, pointing to the events in 2008.

“He had turned his life around,” Sigfrinius said of Berken. “His problems were 12 years in the past.”

If true, Smith said of the allegations, it would represent “quite a leap” for someone who was for a time an “outstanding citizen.”

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