A con man may have faked his own suicide.
Like much of the American South, the state of Tennessee is dotted with majestic estates. Ellen McClung Berry lived in one of them. Known as Berrymount, it was perched on a mountaintop outside Knoxville, a city founded by her great-great grandfather. Arthur Ballard was Ellen McClung Berry’s friend:
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. Arthur Ballard said he didn’t completely trust him:
Marcia Robinson was Mrs. Berry’s former aide:
And it was a role that needed to be filled. Ellen Berry’s only child was her son, Hugh. At the age of 18, Hugh killed his grandmother in a rage over his inheritance. A judge ruled that Hugh Berry was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Rumor had it that Hugh was given a lobotomy and then sent to live in Mexico, where he died. When her husband passed away 27 years later, in February of 1978, Ellen was left all alone.
Almost too conveniently, the mysterious stranger from Denmark stepped in to fill the void in Ellen Berry’s life. Dan moved into her guesthouse and quickly took over the operation of her estate. Ellen signed anything Tondevold put in front of her. In fact, according to Arthur Ballard, in April of 1982, she granted him power of attorney:
In 1984, Dan talked Ellen into taking a winter vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. Before they left, he secretly placed a classified ad for a chauffeur. The ad requested only men who were single and asked that applicants submit a photograph.
At the end of their four months in Charleston, Ellen and Dan made plans to return home. She and a female companion would take a flight, while Tondevold drove the Mercedes back to Berrymount.
When they arrived home on March 31 st , 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 over night, 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.
Meanwhile, 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 that all the cards were over their limit.
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, according to Officer Dean Smith, the police aren’t sure that the man found in the swamp was Dan Tondevold:
Arthur Ballard is also suspicious:
A month after the cremation, Arthur Ballard found a copy of Tondevold’s classified ad for a chauffeur:
Ballard is convinced that Tondevold remained in South Carolina not to hire a chauffeur, but to find a victim:
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:
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.