When Harold Jesse Berney walked out of Florida state prison on December 15th of 1945, he had already amassed a rap sheet seemingly a mile long dating back to 1917. With convictions for grand larceny, embezzlement, stock fraud, and violation of federal postal regulations, Berney was the classic career criminal. He probably didn’t know it at the time of his release, but he was about to embark upon what would not only prove to be his most lucrative scheme ever, but also one that would turn out to be among the most bizarre cons pulled by anyone ever.
What’s probably most amazing, when you hear the details of this story, is how anyone could have fallen for his scheme. It was that incredibly ludicrous.
The year was 1952. The development of television had been placed on hold during World War II and in this postwar environment TV was the hot new technology. Potentially, there was a lot of money to be earned and everyone wanted in on the action. Berney was no exception. Now living in Washington, DC, Berney placed the letter A in front of his last name and started the Aberney Corporation whose sole purpose was the manufacture of television antennas.
The 54-year-old Berney needed some starting capital and convinced an acquaintance, a Washington secretary named Pauline E. Goebel, to invest $500 in this new venture. (about $4,300 today) In March of 1953, the Aberney Corporation dissolved and Berney started the Telewand Corporation. Miss Goebel had been appointed both secretary and treasurer of the two companies, although, in reality, her only role in either company was that of Ms. Moneybags.
Now, if Harold Berney had stopped there, this would have been the story of just another failed businessman and Miss Goebel would have been among the countless people that made a bad investment.
But he didn’t. In the summer of 1953, Berney told Miss Goebel that he was going on vacation with his wife and two children to Rehoboth Beach in the state of Delaware. What he didn’t ever tell her, however, was that this was much more than a family trip. It was, at least to a con man, more of a business trip. While there, he met Pleasant McCarty and his wife and told them about a patent that he had just been awarded. It was such a great invention – one that would draw endless energy from the atmosphere – that Westinghouse was in talks with him to purchase it.
Assuring the couple that they could quickly triple their money, Berney convinced them to part with $10,000 of their hard-earned cash. They then took a mortgage out on their business to invest an additional $10,000. In January, Berney got them to part with another $2,000 to “help meet business expenses.” Like any great magician, that was the last that the couple ever saw of Harold Jesse Berney and their $22,000. Adjusted for inflation, the couple was out nearly $200,000. That’s not exactly chump change.
And here’s where the story finally gets interesting. Berney burned through the couple’s cash quite quickly and needed a new sucker to milk dry. He set his sights on someone he knew well – Pauline Goebel.
He wove a fanciful tale that took advantage of the fact mankind was still Earthbound. Having never placed a man in space and with little known about other planets, incredible stories about UFOs, Martians, and other aliens filled the public’s imagination.
While we now know that Berney was down in Delaware that previous January defrauding the McCarty’s, he told Pauline in the strictest confidence that he was really on a top-secret mission. It was so secret that only the White House, the top executives at Westinghouse, and a few government top officials were in the know. In revealing this information to Pauline, he warned her that she couldn’t reveal what she knew to anyone.
Instead of going to Delaware, the government had flown Berney and the Westinghouse officials to a military base in Houston, Texas. The group first walked through a series of buildings before emerging out onto an airstrip. And what they saw there was beyond belief. It was a humongous bell-shaped flying saucer that Berney estimated was about 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter and 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 meters) tall. Berney told Pauline that “because of the high regard which officials of the Federal Government have for me, I was asked to enter first.”
He added, “Inside the saucer, I heard a voice. The voice said that I had been chosen as the representative of Earth for the planet Venus. After a brief conversation, the voice became a visible blue glow – and the blue glow suddenly changed into the form of a human being.”
This interplanetary traveler introduced himself as Prince Uccelles and told Berney that his planet wished to establish a relationship with the United States and share their technological advances with us. Their only requirement was that it all be kept a secret.
Berney, along with the head honchos at Westinghouse, then flew back to Pittsburgh and Berney checked himself into a hotel. That evening, Prince Uccelles – who claimed to be 600 years old – once again magically appeared and told him of the machine that his people had invented: a “Modulator” to extract energy from the atmosphere back on Venus.
But now that fantastical machine could do so much more than when he ripped off that Delaware couple. Now it could “softly lift and lower millions of tons in a fraction of a second. It can propel planes and space ships at the speed of light – or hold them motionless in the sky. It produces a power potential far greater than anything your atomic energy can contrive.”
Pauline was sold on the idea and invested more of her money. For every $100 she invested, Miss Goebel received a stock certificate that represented one share in the Telewand Corporation. Berney then left on another one of his so-called business trips.
On April 5th of 1955, Ms. Goebel answered the phone in her Washington, DC residence. The call was from a stranger in Texas claiming that he was Prince Uccelles himself. He told Pauline that Harold Berney was seriously ill. This was followed by a second call the following day telling her that Berney had died on Venus. One has to question why an alien capable of transforming himself into a blue light and teleporting just about anywhere would use the lowly telephone, but not Ms. Goebel. She bought the story hook, line, and sinker and quickly swept into action. Recalling that only a very few had knowledge of the US government’s contact with Venus, she urgently tried to contact President Eisenhower to let him know. I am sure that you are not surprised, but she was unable to get in touch with him.
About a week later, Pauline discovered a handwritten letter on her desk from Uccelles that said that Berney was in need of money. “I will be able to give him $500 which will tide his small bills, but he will need about $3,000 for the others.” Why a dead man on Venus would need all that money is beyond me.
Five months later a second letter magically appeared. More money was needed and Ms. Goebel sent $4,500 to the Texas address indicated.
On October 4th, she received a third letter in the mail telling her that Berney had “passed through a complete process of regeneration” and was now on his way back to Texas from Venus.
Harold J. Berney was alive and well when he returned back to Washington that fall. And did he have one incredible story to tell. On Venus, everything was so much bigger and better. He had returned to Earth via a two-mile (3.2 kilometers) long spaceship that had made a brief stopover on the moon. Their technology was way advanced beyond ours. Buildings soared taller than the Washington Monument. So plentiful was gold that it was used in the manufacture of ordinary bathroom fixtures. Crime was basically non-existent and punishable by extradition to another planet.
It was time to let the world know about his Venusian experiences, so Berney, with Miss Goebel’s secretarial assistance, began to pen a manuscript titled “Two Weeks on Venus.” The book was never completed, although I would be interested in reading it.
During the summer of 1956, Berney was once again called away to Pittsburgh on business. Upon his return, he reported that technical problems with the modulator had been solved, but apparently not fast enough for Berney. Although he lacked the capital to do so, he promised ten Westinghouse executives a bonus of $1,000 each if they could get it done by an agreed-upon deadline. Hmmm… Where could he come up with that kind of cash quickly? Any ideas?
Berney returned to Pittsburgh and Pauline sent him a check for the $10,000. He returned to Washington one more time, but that would be the last time Miss Goebel would have any business dealings with him.
His wife, referred to only as Mrs. Berney in the press, received a package with a November 13, 1956 postmark from Eagle Pass, Texas. It contained Harold’s wallet, about $300 in cash, all of his credentials, a camera, his watch, and a tie pin & cuff links set bearing the initials HB. More significantly, there was a note hand-scribed on parchment paper telling Mrs. Berney that her husband had died and was lying in state on Venus. It was signed by the one-and-only Uccelles. Unlike Pauline Goebel, Mrs. Berney didn’t believe any of it. She was convinced that her husband had simply deserted her and their children.
It is unclear who contacted the authorities, but by February of 1957, the FBI was involved in the case. There had been no modulator. No dealings with Westinghouse. No trips to Venus. No Prince Uccelles. In fact, there was no Harold J. Berney to be found anywhere.
The one lead that the FBI did have going for them was that Berney was really a sign painter by trade. They determined that he had purchased $600 worth of sign-painting supplies after checking out of the Pittsburgh hotel he had been staying in. And since Berney was known to head south to warmer climate each winter, the FBI focused their attention on southern states.
On March 21st, an agent in Mobile, Alabama learned that a 1955 Oldsmobile had been registered in the name of one Hal Berney. Agents drove over to Berney’s home on North Craft Highway in nearby Pritchard and – guess what – there was a newly established sign painting company located there.
No one was there at the time, but a neighbor identified Berney as the home’s occupant. He suggested that the still married Berney may be over at his fiancé’s house, and they headed on over. Along the way, they spotted a man fitting Berney’s description at the wheel of an Oldsmobile and signaled for him to pull over.
Berney was arrested but denied the charges. He was quoted as saying, “Trip to Venus? Why that’s ridiculous!”
Ridiculous maybe, but the evidence against him was overwhelming. He pleaded guilty to the charges and in December of 1957, a sentence of between 20 months to five years was handed down. According to the Social Security Death Index Harold Jesse Berney died in 1967 at the age of 69. Pauline E. Goebel was 94 when she passed away in 1997.
When everything was totaled up, Berney had defrauded Pauline Goebel out of an estimated $40,000 and the Delaware couple of an additional $22,000. Adjusted for inflation, his cosmic con raked in about $525,000. Not bad for two weeks on Venus…
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.