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Family Tragedy With A Hollywood Connection In 'Run, Brother, Run'

David Berg is a big-name Texas lawyer who founded his own firm and has won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's also been a civil rights activist and a Clarence Darrow-style defender of the damned: disgraced politicians, grungy protesters and celebrities.

But until now, with the release of his memoir, Run, Brother, Run, Berg has kept the most dramatic case of his life bottled up. He and his brother, Alan Berg, were separated at a young age when their parents divorced. They reconnected when Alan moved to Houston at age 16 after serving in the Navy. They grew closer and closer — until Alan was murdered in 1968. The accused killer was Charles Harrelson, and if that name sounds familiar, you may have heard of his son Woody, the actor. Berg talks to NPR's Scott Simon about his brother's untimely death and all that followed.

Interview Highlights

On how Alan was a salesman

"I would accompany him when he would go out to sell carpet. ... He and Dad were partners in that business. Once he talked himself into someone's home, he would sit down cross-legged on the floor and sit there. He would listen very intently to what the potential customer's objections were. Instead of running from them, he would say, 'You know, I know these are kind of hefty payments each month, but wouldn't you give up those cigarettes that you're smoking to make a dent in those payments if it would make a nicer home for your wife and kids?' ... There was just nobody he couldn't close."

On the last time they saw each other

"Alan came down [to my office] the very first day I got my furniture moved and settled into a cushion. He had a big box with him. He pulled out all kinds of gifts for me for my startup: reams of paper, a Donald Duck eraser and a lunch kit with Roy Rogers and Trigger on the side, and he held the lunch kit up and he said, 'David, let me ask you something ... don't you think Roy's looking at his horse a little oddly?' He would always do something for me. He would stuff cash into my hands. ... Hell, he taught my way into law school.

"At the end of the day he had leads to go out on ... carpet leads, appointments. And I saw him that night, he was leaning against his car. He had a chauffeur-driven car. He was Gatsbyesque, my brother. But this was not necessarily a tribute to his success. It was a tribute to his impatience. He had thousands of dollars in traffic tickets and lost his license. But he stood there in the sunlight with his sunglasses on and he told me he loved me and he was proud of me. And I told him thank you, that I loved him and I couldn't have done it without him. And then we never spoke again."

David Berg wrote <em>The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win</em> in 2003. It is an American Bar Association best-seller.
Martine Fougeron / Courtesy Scribner
Courtesy Scribner
David Berg wrote The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win in 2003. It is an American Bar Association best-seller.

On what it was like in the weeks after Alan's disappearance

"It's very hard to explain except to say that when a loved one disappears you become detached from anything even remotely that could be described as a normal life. I couldn't take an unlabored breath. My father was so distraught he would throw up. He would bolt from the middle of sales discussions and just leave and look for my brother. So it was devastating. Finally, Dad hired a private investigator in Houston with a great reputation, Claude Harrelson ... and magically, within three days, Claude said, 'Your son has been murdered' and Dad told me everything began to spin.

"And as it turned out, he demanded $3,000 for information leading to Alan's remains and Dad said, 'Why $3,000? I've already posted a $5,000 reward,' and Claude Harrelson said, 'I don't know, I don't know who these people are, but if you let this get out, the murderer is gonna murder me.' ... As it turns out [Charles Harrelson, Claude's brother] not only murdered my brother ... but combined with Claude and one other man who was involved to shake Dad down for the reward."

On how the book focuses on the trial

"Charles Harrelson liked to have witnesses to his murders. It's something that somehow turned him on and excited him. Her name was Sandra Sue Attaway and without her testimony the case would crumble and go away. They had a common-law marriage and what that meant was that the jury had to disregard her testimony if they believed there was a common-law marriage."

On why his brother was murdered

"There was a business dispute with a former employee of my father and my brother. This former employee went into the same business, carpet sales, in Houston, and Dad tried to run him out of business. There was evidence that he paid Harrelson $1,500 to kill my brother. Once Harrelson was acquitted under Texas law, then this particular man could not be guilty of having hired Harrelson to kill my brother. So he never served."

On the connection to actor Woody Harrelson

"[He] has inserted himself into the story because over the years he has attempted, if not to heroize his dad — and some of the things Woody Harrelson has said seemed to me to be insensitive — in trying to legitimize his dad — to the survivors of the many men Charles Harrelson murdered. The Texas Rangers think maybe as [many] as 20. I understand sticking up for your dad, but do it quietly."

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