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Brother’s Keeper

David Berg’s book explores a decades-old mystery of a murder in the family.

Notorious lawyer David Berg says writing the sad story of his brother’s murder at the hands of a hit man was “cathartic.”

In 1968, 31-year-old Houstonian Alan Berg, a family man and carpet salesman, vanished. It took months to discover he’d been kidnapped and shot dead by a notorious hit man, Charles Harrelson, who despite having been acquitted at the time is now roundly believed to have pulled the trigger. Harrelson eventually died in prison doing two life terms for assassinating a San Antonio judge.

If the killer’s surname sounds familiar, that’s because his son is famous actor Woody Harrelson. And if David Berg, author of the new memoir about the murder, Run, Brother, Run, also rings a bell, that’s because he’s the victim’s kid brother, now a Houston attorney.

Berg’s book is laced with recollections funny, heartbreaking and haunting, covering not only the murder and the hard-to-believe reasons for it, but also growing up in a loving yet dysfunctional family and moving on to a successful career. “I was angry,” writes Berg in Brother. “It wouldn’t take Freud to figure out that I’d found an outlet for my rage and that winning cases was my revenge.”

Now 71, discussing the tome over coffee and poached eggs at River Oaks’ Avalon Diner, Berg says, “Writing the book was cathartic, better than therapy.” The eatery is one of Berg’s favorite haunts; it and other local establishments, such as a few shady bars, are among the places where critical moments in the story are set.

Fit with a thick crop of white hair men half his age would envy, Berg is a charmer with a warm smile and an easy laugh that contrast his professional reputation as a tough son-of-a-gun with news-making clients aplenty. But in 1979 it was the counselor who garnered the headline, when a magazine profiled Berg with a piece titled, “Is He the Meanest Lawyer in Town?” Says the attorney, “By then the question had become rhetorical.”

Whether he’s a “mean lawyer” is an open question, but he’s been an accomplished one, representing wealthy clients and handling high-profile pro bono cases, too. At age 25, Berg won a First Amendment ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, defending a H-Town man arrested for parodying the military in a crude anti-Vietnam War skit. And in ’81, he helped represent Vietnamese fishermen in a suit that ended the KKK’s reign of terror along the Texas coast.

Today Berg lives in exclusive Shadyside with wife Kathryn and their teen daughter Caitlin. The author, who also has adult sons Geoff and Gabe from a previous marriage, has a second home in the Hamptons. His affluence is a far cry from his beginnings, living near poverty in a two-bedroom Arkansas home with his mother, grandparents and sister. “Some nights we had nothing to eat,” he says. At age 11, Berg moved in with his father and stepmother in Houston’s middle-class North Braeswood district.

Brother’s cover recalls childhood days with a photo of Berg and his brother, the eldest’s arm around the younger. “Alan was my best friend,” he says. “I wrote the book because I had a story to tell. Alan deserved better.”