Investigates

The Legend of Dan Tondevold, Part 1

dantondevoldSince Word War II the United States and Japan couldn’t have been further apart outside of a military pact. For decades, Japan’s economy thrived in economic agreements with it’s neighboring Far East Nations and Europe. From 1970 to 1973, Japan’s GDP had more than doubled. The second largest economy in the world in the early 1970’s, retail legend Robert Berry, then President and CEO of Joseph Magnin Co., had a vision that would not only bring in record profits that executives and shareholders could only imagine. Despite war still raging in Vietnam, Robert Berry, President & CEO envisioned penetrating markets in the Far East. Robert and the directors of J. Magnin, met with speculators, numerous hedge-fund managers and executives from numerous corporations. The consensus was that Japan would be the best country to enter a partnership with, as they were the most westernized, had free markets and trade, plus the second largest economy in the world that was rapidly growing.  J. Magnin was the first United States retail store in Japan to operate in Japan.

The man he selected to head the operation was J. Magnin Co. San Francisco Director of Merchandise, Daniel Sterling Tondevold.

Prior to JM Tokyo Number One’s Grand Opening, Dan spent almost two years in Japan learning the language, studying their customs, traditions, business laws, fashions and styles. Aside from two other directors from JM San Francisco overseeing specialized roles, the rest of the staff at JM Tokyo Number One were to be Japanese nationals. He spent a great deal of time hiring and training the best to represent the Magnin brand.  Though he admitted he admitted he learned so much more from them. Working with fashion icons such as Liz Claiborne, fashion duo Silverman & Rodgers and Edwin Schulman, Chairman of Samuel Schulman Furs and president of Alixandre, Tondevold and team introduced American couture to the Japanese, especially women, and both men and women loved it.

In late October, 1973, Daniel Sterling Tondevold was standing at a podium in Tokyo, Japan, in what would turn out to be a pivotal moment in United States history. As the Director of Merchandise for high end fashion giant J. Magnin Co. San Francisco(called JM), he was tapped by President and CEO Robert Berry to launch their first JM store in Tokyo, Japan, and introduce the Japanese to American couture. Except, this wasn’t just an ordinary Grand Opening of an international location.

Shortly after Magnin President/CEO Robert Berry and the wife of Ambassador to Japan cut the ribbon kicking off the Grand Opening of JM Tokyo Number One, Robert Berry took the podium, taking questions. After a few obligatory questions about JM’s success and future plans, the questions almost immediately were about the Japanese people. An isolated country that we had been at war with a few decades earlier and had dropped two atomic bombs on, American perception of Japanese people was still deeply rooted in anti-Japanese sentiment.

Robert Berry smiled and admitted he had not spent much time in the country, but Dan Tondevold now Operations Manager of JM Tokyo had. Dan stood up, smiled and began dispelling rumors the rumors and misconceptions of the Japanese.

“The way I hear it compared, is to say that Americans work in order to play, while the Japanese work to live”.

-Daniel S. Tondevold Director of Merchandise Joseph Magnin Co.

Background Information

As a fan of Unsolved Mysteries since childhood, there are cases that stick with you throughout your life. You check on additional information from time to time, no matter how serious or silly it may seem.

One such case was that of Dan Tondevold, an international man of mystery with a terrible Dutch accent. Not long after Thomas Berry died, Tondevold arrived at Berrymount, as chauffeur and another live-in aide for 84 year-old Ellen McClung Berry, who already had a live in cook and maid. Prior to Thomas Berry’s death, The Berry’s made a fortune basically flipping houses into their 80’s in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, near Knoxville, Tennessee.

Unsolved Mysteries consisted of numerous categories, which in turn dictated the tone of the segment and whether or not is was as serious as others. The mystery of Dan Tondevold was categorized as an “Unexplained Death”. For most kids, they were all very serious and real, except for the “Magic Rock”, which was nothing short of a missed opportunity for an April Fool’s joke.

Contrary to the belief of most UM fans though, “Unexplained Death” wasn’t designed to be entirely a fact based driven narrative- unlike say “Wanted” segments which focused on fugitives from justice. Instead it offers “alternative theories” or “alternative history”, in contrast to the official or mainstream version of events. Often segments in this category were very subjective, mostly focusing on suicides or accidental deaths, narrated mostly by parents and loved ones remained in denial. Having said that, there are some compelling and interesting cases without relatives’ and hired experts’ conjecture and innuendo. Sadly, both relatives and the show didn’t hesitate to perpetuate mysterious and sinister elements, such as Satanic Cult activity which looking back today was just silly. Back then it was a legitimate fear for some, like UFOs and ghosts.

When FilmRise and Amazon reached a deal to release and stream the episodes, the timing was perfect- during this “True Crime Renaissance”. According to sources involved, uploading seasons was a daunting task. They had to add updates at the end of the episodes if there was new information or an apprehension. Some episodes were removed completely for obvious reasons. To know which segments were in the episodes they named them.

The Ellen Berry and Dan Tondevold episode was named, “Lady and the Tramp”.

Nursing a broken foot in early 2002, I took to researching Dan Tondevold. Back then, the internet was primitive. Access to basic government records and newspapers were few and far between. Fellow researchers and investigators working cases weren’t publishing their findings, but “chatting” about their findings. Investigating cases such as these was tedious. Fortunately, I came across perhaps hundreds of individuals on genealogy websites & message boards. A place with real people not asking “ASL” every minute and giving us bogus stats. People just like me, with similar interests who had no issue assisting me, just as I had no issue assisting them. They knew how hard it was to obtain vital information. That was the golden rule in most of the communities. While everyone was mostly anonymous, we did know each person’s handle and what area or city they lived in. This was vital in obtaining local records, newspapers or establishing contact with people in the White Pages. Nobody had a digital footprint in the early aughts.

Spending a great deal of time with amateur genealogists and working on my own family lineage, which is an absolute clusterfuck. Fortunately, Tondevold was a rare name. It appears they migrated from French-Canadian territory to Idaho about 200 years ago. By 2002, there were some in Montana, the Dakotas and then a handful across the United States.

Other than being a possible murder, the case did not have a sinister tone, but the mystery of who this man was, could nearly eat at you for decades. Going through my old notebooks recently, I found this case along with a couple letters.

Who exactly was Daniel Sterling Tondevold, the man that Ellen Berry corresponded with for over fifteen years and arrived at Berrymount shortly after her husband died? The man who spent the next seven years as her caretaker and companion?

Did Ellen Berry find the son she always wanted? A successful business man who mingled with the upper crust just like she and her husband Thomas?

Did Dan Tondevold find the mother he long sought and never had? Did he abandon a life of luxury, mingling with fashion designers such as Liz Claiborne, Jerry Silverman & Shannon Rodgers?

To get the answer, I purchased Amazon Prime, then watched the episodes again and again. I needed the simple answers. Other than her friend Arthur “Pete” Ballard, Mrs. Berry’s former maid Marcia Robinson and Officer Dean Smith of the White Pine Police Department, nobody else is really making the allegation. By their own admission they went through her papers, found Tondevold’s resume, the an ad he placed in The Post and Courier, a newspaper out of Charleston, South Carolina

I just had a few simple questions.

  1. How much money was embezzled from the time he arrived to the time he killed himself or murdered someone to fake his death?
  2. What was their relationship?
  3. Was the FBI ever contacted for interstate wire fraud? Was a police report filed?
  4. Who was murdered? Did a local man go missing within three weeks of that date?

 

First, who was the victim, Ellen McClung Berry?

The Local Grande Dame of the Old School

Ellen McClung was born into a privileged life of luxury and leisure on November 14, 1894. She was the great-great granddaughter of Knoxville founder James White and the great-granddaughter of White’s son-in-law, Knoxville’s first clerk and career surveyor Charles McClung, who in 1791, platted Knoxville’s streets and helped draft Tennessee’s original constitution. Her grandfather and father both were Trustees of the University of Tennessee and were instrumental in getting the university off the ground and helped mold it into the institution it is today. The amount of money they provided to the school in property, antiquities and cold-hard-cash alone couldn’t even be converted into today’s dollars. An article in the 1980’s estimated well over ten-million-dollars. While property back then was simply claimed allowing them thousands of acres to giveaway, some of these lots sell for millions today.

If there were royal families in America, the McClung family was one of them and Ellen, was a princess. To give you an idea of their social status, according to renowned Fountain City historian, Dr. J.C. (Jim) Tumblin in “Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference”,

“With her cousins, Isabella Tyson and Jean McNutt, and friends from other old Knoxville families, Margaret Briscoe, Marguerite McClure and Isabel Knaffl, she[Ellen McClung] was presented to society as a debutante in 1914.  The famous local portrait artist, Lloyd Branson, painted her in her elegant coming out gown. She traveled abroad extensively with her parents and probably knew more about Italian arts and architecture than any other Knoxvillian.  She also studied European fashion and wore gowns from the couturiers of Rome and Paris.  

In 1928, Ellen McClung married Thomas Berry- an alleged former coal tycoon from Rome, Georgia. By all accounts, Thomas and Ellen Berry would become wealthy, ultimately built a palatial home on the family estate in Knoxville, named Belcaro. The home was modeled after an Italian villa(like the others)- going so far as to import plants from the Mediterranean for their ever expanding acres of “gardens”. The Berrys were social people, travelling the world mostly attending high end-parties and mingling with the rich and famous. Ellen was extremely knowledgeable socialite, she had a sense of style and often was looked to for advice on decor and fashion tips.

Finally in 1932, at 38 years-old, she would give birth to their only child Hugh Lawson McClung Berry, who by 5 years old was sent to the finest preparatory schools. Hugh would only be with his parents three months of the year during summer break and two weeks for Christmas. When he was home, he was often looked after by the maids. Some say Ellen and Thomas showed Hugh little to no affection.

In 1936, Ellen’s father Judge Hugh Lawson Berry passed away and Ella, his wife and Ellen’s mother needed constant care. Ellen and Thomas moved into the main house at Belcaro to be with her.

But tragedy would strike.

It’s 1951, at the Berry’s winter home in West Palm Beach, Florida, their now eighteen year-old 6’2″ and 220 lb hulking son Hugh took a .410 shotgun and shot his grandmother Ella with birdshot in the chest, stomach and arm. He then turned the shotgun on Thomas and blasted him in the face and chest. Hugh took off, triggering one of the largest manhunts in Florida’s history at the time. A patrolman spotted Hugh Berry armed with a shotgun running across the West Palm Beach Country Club, gave chase and was then shot in the leg as Hugh escaped. He was caught a short time later, claimed that he was “being disinherited of $600,000” and that was his reason for the rampage. His grandmother Ella passed away a little over a week later.

Like most wealthy folks back in the day, when their children brought shame to the family or suffered mental or physical disabilities, they were shipped off and that’s exactly what happened with Hugh. Apparently several mental health professionals of the era and the sheriff of West Palm Beach County determined that Hugh was suffered from Dementia praecox, a term no longer used, but described the onset of psychosis unrelated to a brain injury. From what I’ve read, the term was used for young people in their late teens to early twenties who suffered a psychotic episode, which today can be a symptom of those suffering from manic depression/bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. He was sent to a state hospital until a private one opened in Chicago. Little is known about Hugh after this incident.

Hugh died of pneumonia in Mexico on New Year’s Eve 1963. He was just 31 years-old.

Some suspect that Hugh may have had a lobotomy after the shooting incident. While controversial then, the procedure was extremely popular at the time, especially in state mental institutions & prisons and among the wealthy for children they felt were abnormal or undisciplined.

Regardless, family and friends of the Berrys’ never saw him again and the Berrys’ rarely mentioned him. They seemed to preoccupied with their properties, social life and conservation efforts. Much later in life, Ellen expressed a great deal of remorse, sorrow and indicated he committed suicide, so they lied about his cause of death to protect the family name. It is said that Ellen would go through long periods of depressions after Hugh passed. The tragedy of losing her mother and with her son institutionalized, Ellen could no longer live at Belcaro- it would just be a constant reminder. So they sold the main house and garden and divided the property up into numerous lots and auctioned it off.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel on January 21, 1965 , Ellen and Thomas Berry announced they were “granting” the University of Tennessee a very significant contribution. Just like her father and grandfather before her, she continued the tradition. The grant included seven of their downtown properties, “valued over $300,000” which the university would manage.  The proceeds would provide “a source of life-income for Thomas and Ellen”, however upon death, the property would remain with the university. Some of the property would be used for McClung Tower and Plaza, to honor the McClung family and their commitment to the university.

By 1977, the Berrys’ had amassed wealth and a reputation to match restoring, designing and building beautiful homes throughout the Knoxville area and beyond. They spared no expense personifying and creating a new culture of “southern gentry” throughout the foothills of the Smokey Mountains.

According to Dr. Tumblin in “Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference”, one of the Berrys’ home projects was set to be their personal residence, named, “Berrymount and filled the spacious rooms with their rare furnishings, antiques and art collections. The 11-foot ceilings and the mountain top setting made summer cooling unnecessary. As at Belcaro, they had a stunning vista–this time of English Mountain, Mount LeConte and Douglas Lake. 

In 1978, while restoring a massive mountaintop estate called “Glenmore” in Jefferson City, Thomas Berry passed away at 83. According to those that knew Ellen, not only was losing her soulmate devastating, but it was rude awakening. It was the first time she had to really take a look at her own mortality. The Berrys’ had been together for decades living life, in both work and play. Despite what all her family accomplished and everything she and Thomas built, one thing was for certain. She had no one to share it with and no one to leave their legacy to. The guilt of not starting a family was eating her up, but Hugh was somewhat of a stain on their namesake. Definitely not what she expected from a child of their pedigree.

The Berrys not only spent a lifetime building, designing and restoring properties, but re-established the pride and admiration for the elegance, wealth and beauty of the Old American South.

 

Unsolved Mysteries: Dan Tondevold Story

One of my favorite quotes on Unsolved Mysteries came from the episode about Dan Tondevold, oddly titled “The Lady and the Tramp”. The episode opens with Ellen’s friend Arthur Ballard, known as Pete, being interviewed by Unsolved Mysteries producers. Rarely do we ever hear the questions being asked of the “narrating interview”, so I can only assume he was asked to sum up who exactly Ellen was or how would he consider her in just a sentence or two, so he tells us rather humorously,

“I think she would have been considered definitely one of the local grande dames of the old school, and probably there were not many. That means you can live on the mountain like she did and have everybody come to you. Like Muhammad. It’s just that simple.”

December 4, 1991, Unsolved Mysteries aired just like it did every Wednesday during prime-time. The show, still in it’s prime reached nearly 28 million viewers. The episode ranked 6th in the Nielsen ratings that week.

From there, The Legend of Dan Tondevold began:

[TRANSCRIPT UNSOLVED MYSTERIES]

One of the people who came to the mountain back in 1978 was Dan Tondevold, a mysterious man who claimed to be from Denmark. He had corresponded with Ellen Berry for 15 years, but the true nature of their relationship was unclear. Sometimes, the 85-year-old Ellen said Tondevold was her godson. Other times, she said that he had been a friend of her late son, Hugh.

 

Pete Ballard said he didn’t completely trust him, “I had the strangest gut feeling that this kid was bad news. But he was making Ellen happy. If he was, in fact, a friend of her late son Hugh, for lots of reasons, I was happy that she was happy and at least somebody was on the mountain with her at night in case she fell or got sick and could get help.”

 

Mrs. Berry’s former aide, Marcia Robinson elaborates, “He was taking the place of her son. He looked like her son, apparently, and I know that was Mrs. Berry’s attraction to Dan, that he was playing that role.”

 

They became close, with him being so well-mannered he fit in with the Knoxville upper crust. After moving into her guest house, he took over the day-to-day operation of her estate.

 

In April 1982, she granted Dan power of attorney.

 

In 1983, she rewarded his dedication to her by spending over a million dollars to buy eight horses for him as he said he was a horse breeder. He kept them on her land, naming them all after her with slight variants. Friends of hers were surprised by this generous gesture, but she claimed that that kind of money was insignificant to her.

 

However, her trust in him was misplaced.

 

In 1984, he talked her into taking a winter vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. Before they left, he composed a classified ad for a chauffeur, asking for men that are single. Interestingly, he also asked that they submit a photograph. He secretly placed the ad in Charleston papers. After the four month vacation, he convinced her to fly back to Tennessee with her hired companion, while he drove the Mercedes back to Berrymount.

 

When they arrived home on March 31, 1985, there was no sign of the Mercedes, or of Dan Tondevold. The telephone and all the other utilities at Berrymount had been cut off.  When she checked with her accountant, she learned that the bank was planning to foreclose on the house and that her checking and savings accounts had been drained. Seemingly overnight, Ellen Berry was virtually bankrupt. Tondevold had even borrowed almost $85,000 against Berrymount. For the first time in her life, Ellen had a mortgage to pay. And for the first time in her life, she had no way to pay it

 

Unaware that his secret was out, Tondevold was one hundred miles south of Charleston at an exclusive resort, living in high style on Fripp Island, South Carolina. After he ran up huge bills on Ellen Berry’s credit cards, he was told by the front desk clerk that all the cards were over their limit, he left.

 

The next day, a handwritten suicide note and will were found in his suite. Two weeks later, in a swampy, deserted area of Fripp Island, a man’s body was found. He had apparently shot himself in the left temple.

 

An antique gun, which belonged to Ellen Berry, was found a few inches from the body.   The dead man carried no identification, but he did carry Ellen Berry’s credit cards. The body was partially decomposed, but the coroner brought in a resort security guard to identify it.   He identified the man as Tondevold.

 

Tondevold’s death was ruled a suicide. The body was immediately cremated, just as he had requested in his will. But, not everyone is sure that the man found in the swamp was Dan Tondevold.

 

According to Officer Dean Smith of the White Pine Police Department,“I’m not sure he’s dead. Nobody that knew him identified him. You know, the coroner found him, a police officer and a security guard said, ‘Yeah, that’s him’, and he hadn’t seen him but just driving by in a little security shack.”

Arthur Ballard is also suspicious, “Well, you can’t negate the possibility that he did indeed kill himself, that’s possible. I just don’t believe it.   It doesn’t make sense to me that somebody who went to all that trouble to get all that money and to be as nefarious about the whole thing from beginning to end as he was, was out to kill himself.” 

A month after the cremation, Arthur Ballard found a copy of Tondevold’s classified ad for a chauffeur,“Now, I would find it ridiculous that he would need to put an ad in the Charleston paper for a chauffeur for Berrymount. You can get them in the area, I’m sure, just as easily. And I suddenly realized that maybe he was looking for a look-alike.”

Ballard is convinced that Tondevold remained in South Carolina not to hire a chauffeur, but to find a victim,“The look-alike would have been the person he ultimately killed. And then he just sort of scooted off, to wherever he had planned to go.”

The authorities still believed that Tondevold committed suicide. Yet, there was a shadow of doubt which sparked a disturbing theory.

Curt Copeland is the coroner of Beaufort County, South Carolina explains some gossip he heard,“The idea is that Dan Tondevold is, in fact, Mr. and Mrs. Berry’s son, who was supposed to have died in Mexico. A very easy way to bring somebody back, under an assumed name, to get off the hook, after having shot and killed his grandmother.”

No one really knew who Dan Tondevold was or where he came from. Then, a search of Ellen Berry’s papers turned up his resume. It listed his hometown as Las Vegas, Nevada.

 

A yearbook from Las Vegas High School proved, that in 1951, Dan Tondevold was a member of the senior class and president of the Thespian Club. The rumor that Dan Tondevold and Hugh Berry were the same person was finally put to rest.

 

Ellen McClung Berry lived out her final years in a small apartment near Knoxville. No one knows exactly how much money she lost to Dan Tondevold, but estimates run into the millions. Authorities believe he may have transferred the money to accounts in France or Denmark.

[TRANSCRIPT UNSOLVED MYSTERIES ENDS]

When a true crime show presents a case to us, the viewer relies on a reliable and credible narrator(or interviewees). All too often, the narrator is unreliable, rather than critiquing the investigation and the evidence, they focus on “possibilities” not eliminated by evidence rather than theories substantiated by evidence. One must be critical of the investigation. Often shows won’t go far beyond the theories presented to them in sort of a multiple choice fashion.

One of the reasons I featured the background of Ellen McClung Berry first is so we don’t enter this story with an inherent bias that she is this nice, little old lonely lady, taken in by some slick con artist. Ellen Berry was not some woman that depended on a man her whole life, and when her husband died she had no clue how to function. She worked hard and played hard. She was an educated woman, passionate about antiquities, restoring homes, furnishing them with priceless art and artifacts, importing plants from the Mediterranean to build elaborate hanging gardens. She was a natural leader, who ran charities, art galleries, closed real estate and dealt in business in an era and region of the United States that was almost exclusively a men’s club. She was not an idiot. She was no sucker.

She went to preparatory schools from elementary school to high school, then received a master’s degree in college. Again, at a time when women really had no place in the workplace. Yet, she somehow commanded respect of high society.

Another thing that stuck out about her story, was Thomas and her relationship. While he was a called a coal tycoon and magnate in numerous essays about Ellen, he’s really this supporting character in her story. Could it be, that like Dan Tondevold, Thomas was a kept man? Perhaps she and he invented this “coal magnate” background to impress her friends, family and to give him a sense of pride? Looking in his background and researching him, aside from a few brief mentions, he’s almost as mysterious as Dan Tondevold. He completely left his life behind in Georgia and moved to be with her and stayed with her, where she grew up.

A Forgotten Legend

Enough with the obvious, who was this “tramp”, this Dan “Ton De Vold” that arrived with a hideous accent at the doorstep of Berrymount after her husband died?

According to Ellen McClung Berry, Dan Tondevold was to coming to stay at her guest house as Berrymount to write a book.

According to Unsolved Mysteries, there was “no historical record of Dan Tondevold”, it was even implied that he probably never had a social security card or identification. Of course, our friend Pete, going through the papers of Ellen Berry happened to find his “resume”, not any financial records to get an investigation and perhaps trace his whereabouts, but his resume?

It stated his hometown was Las Vegas, Nevada. A show researcher happened to find Dan Tondevold in a Las Vegas high school yearbook from 1951. In a bit of irony, he was the president of the Thespian club. They show us his senior picture and then on a page dedicated to the thespian club in the yearbook.

One thing that bothers me, these shows never reveal how far they’ve dug or researched the individual in question. You have to wonder if they found information that contradicts the show’s allegations or damages the entertainment value of it, so they turn the page or toss the copy out.

So who is Dan Tondevold really? Did he show up at Berrymount with the intent to defraud Ellen McClung Berry of her fortune over the course of seven years? Then after taking her for all she’s got, did he find a body double and kill him to fake his own death?

You know how the story ends, but before you decide… let’s take a look at who Dan Tondevold was before he ended up Berrymount in 1978.

Was he a con-artist that pulled off the ultimate heist or was he an innocent man slander by those that knew Ellen McClung?

Find out in The Legend of Dan Tondevold, Part 2, tomorrow!

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