April 15, 2018

Dutch John: Prescott's Audacious Bootlegger

"Dutch" John Berent was sitting in the defendant's seat in Superior Court. Across from him lay "273 bottles of beer; (along with) 23 pints, two quarts and 3 five-gallon (glass jugs) of whiskey." Although he would soon be found guilty of bootlegging, he would successfully sue to have all that liquor returned to him!

If it was prohibition in Yavapai county and one wanted a drink, then "the distinctly individual countenance of (Dutch John Berent was) well known to practically every person in Yavapai county," according to the newspaper.

Soon the sheriff's office would also become aware of Dutch John's notoriety and with the assistance of paid snitches and the employment of private detectives, John would find himself before the court judge.

When Prohibition was set to start, Berent had the entrepreneurial idea to stock-up to an inventory the size of a distributor. He would later testify: "Before January 1, 1915, I purchased 25 gallons of whiskey and 50 cases of beer from Captain Dodge for my own use."

Many people were known to come "visit" Dutch John, but in order to avoid corroborating witnesses, he would never "see" more than one person at a time.

However, after selling 3 bottles to a paid informant named Moore and 2 bottles to JW Reiff, a detective of the Thiele Detective Agency of Los Angeles, Dutch John was pinched. A further search of his premises unveiled the large stockpile that now stood as evidence in court.

Every witness the State brought to testify to buying alcohol from Berent, Dutch John flatly denied. When JW Rieff's two pints were entered into evidence, it was noticed that they were less than half-full. The courtroom erupted into laughter when the private dick insisted that he had to have a taste to make sure it was really whiskey.

When the proceedings were finished, Dutch John was found guilty.

The story of the unintended consequences of alcohol prohibition in Prescott, Arizona in 1915. The library lost its public funding.

However, before Berent was sentenced, he sued the Justice of the Peace to have the bulk of the spiritous liquids returned to him since he was never accused of selling more than the 5 pints. Due to a loophole in the prohibition law, Dutch John was right.

This caused consternation for the sentencing judge who told Berent that he would give him a lighter sentence if he would both confess to the crime and allow the county authorities to destroy the rest of his stock. Wanting his hooch returned, Berent refused and spent the next 8 months in jail as well as paying a $300 fine. It was the stiffest sentence any bootlegger had received in Yavapai county.

Predictably, the harsh sentence was not enough to set Dutch John onto the "straight and narrow." After only four months out of jail, he was again arrested for bootlegging.

Berent had taken a rail trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico under the watchful eye of a Wells Fargo detective. On the return trip were Dutch John and 4 mysterious barrels marked: "Household Goods, Glassware, This End Up, and Handle Carefully." Eventually, these 4 barrels were connected to Berent, and when opened, each contained a 10 gallon keg of whiskey.

The court was less than merciful toward Dutch John, sending him to jail when he was unable to pay a hefty $750 bail. Later, the bail was increased to $1000--unheard of for a bootlegging case.

Dutch John must have realized that he would be facing a very heavy sentence and that Arizona authorities would always keep an eye on him.

Still, he was a good prisoner and "considered harmless." As a result, he was allowed out of his cell to do some odd jobs to "supplement his slender resources and aid his digestion." So at 10am on Easter Sunday morning, when the streets were empty and the churches were full, Dutch John quietly slipped-out the jail's west door before he could be brought to trial.

"The sheriff's office is confident that the old fellow will be seen and apprehended again," the paper reported. "His portion is likely to be an unpalatable one if he allows himself to come once more within the clutches of the law."

"If he is hiding, his cover is a good one; if he is making tracks out of the purview of the authorities here, his tracks are well concealed; he must only travel by night."

Berent had devised the perfect escape. Neither hide nor hair was ever seen of "Dutch" John in Arizona again. It is assumed that he drifted to moister climates.

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NOTE: Dutch John's last name was spelled 3 different ways in the newspaper's coverage: Berandt, Berant, and Berent. The author chose the most common spelling: Berent.

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