“ ‘No witness, no case’—that was Paul’s motto,” said one attorney. “There was this guy with a tattoo of the scales of justice on his back. Below the scales was the quote, ‘No witness, no case—Paul Bergrin.’ When your customers are all criminals, what’s better advertising than a prison tattoo?”
Everyone had his Paul Bergrin story—how he started off with one client, then switched to another defendant in the same case, got the second guy to flip against the first, and kept the money from both. There were tales of how Bergrin planned to open a $30 million gambling casino in the Costa Rican cloud forest. And of course, there was the whorehouse deal. Bergrin had taken control of one of Manhattan’s ritziest escort services and started bringing a steady stream of cops, lawyers, and even a prison official to the brothel’s Worth Street headquarters, where the samples were free.
Bergrin had gone rogue all right: “He’d crossed the line.”
It was a phrase that came up over and over again—the line, that border between what was allowed and what was not, the edge over which the rule of law dropped into Hobbesian free-for-all. In places like Essex County, with the tragic legacy of the 1967 Newark riots and its more or less permanent poverty class, definitions of right and wrong tend to be more pliable than a stone tablet brought down from Sinai’s. But even here, there was a point of no return.
In retrospect, Park Place lawyers noted insufficiently heeded red flags. Times when they should have “known.” Said one former associate, “these stone-cold criminals would come to the office, and Paul would say he ‘guaranteed’ he would get them an acquittal. How do you guarantee an acquittal?”
“I always regarded Paul as a good lawyer,” said another colleague. “No one worked harder or was better prepared. But he’d always be bragging about how he won fourteen straight homicide cases. Clarence Darrow can’t win fourteen homicide cases in a row, but Paul Bergrin can. When someone starts winning unwinnable cases, you notice. But never in a thousand years would I have imagined he would go this far. I mean, dealing dope out of your law office, killing witnesses? Who does that?”
There isn’t much background on Bergrin, other than his own version. Son of a Brooklyn cop, he says he was considered “incorrigible” and sent to a Brooklyn boys’ home. At 17, he enlisted in the Army, eventually becoming a member of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. He married his high-school sweetheart, had children, and lived in Marlboro, an upscale community in Monmouth County where he is remembered by neighbors as “totally normal … just another dad down the block.” But as most who worked with him say, there was another side that was off-limits. “Paul was easygoing, accessible. But then there would be these time he’d go into his office and lock the door. You knew something was going on and you better stay away.”
Asked if there was any moment when Bergrin might have first crossed the line, several pointed to an incident during his tenure with the U.S. Attorney in the late eighties. With his Nova diploma, fractured grammar, and rough-hewn Essex-prosecutor manner, Bergrin was an odd fit with the federales. He put a large-size pinup calendar on his wall. But he had something his Harvard colleagues did not. While they had busied themselves preparing A-plus briefs, Bergrin had been facing down Essex County juries. “He had a lot of experience and carried himself like a hard-charger,” said one lawyer who served in the U.S. Attorney’s office along with Bergrin. “Some people found that intimidating.”
The event in question centered on a 1989 corruption case the Feds were pressing against two investigators from the Essex County prosecutor’s office. The defendants were widely regarded as “filthy,” and the case appeared routine. Until, that is, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Bergrin surprisingly took the stand as a character witness for one of the defendants. He worked with the man when he was county prosecutor, Bergrin testified, and he’d found them to have “a reputation for truth, veracity, and integrity.”
Recalling the episode more than twenty years later, one judge remained nonplused. “Here you have someone who is working for the government testifying against the government. This is what might be called a questionable career move.”
“They didn’t fire him,” said one of Bergrin’s U.S. Attorney colleagues. “They just took away all his cases. He’d come to work, and there would be nothing for him to do. For Paul, that had to be hell. Eventually he quit.”
What happened remains a mystery. Why would someone so ambitious—Bergrin often said he dreamed of being a U.S. senator—throw away a job that had catapulted people like Rudy Giuliani to stardom? Some thought the Essex investigator had something on Bergrin and had blackmailed him into testifying. For his part, Bergrin contended that he was his friend, and when friends are in trouble you come through, no matter how much it costs you.