Real Name: Dan Tondevold
Case: Unidentified Remains and Fraud
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Date: March 31, 1985
Details: Ellen McClung Berry was a wealthy heiress in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her great-great-grandfather was the founder of Knoxville. Her family were descendants of one of the first settlers to the area. In 1978, a mysterious man named Dan Tondevold began coming to her estate. He claimed to be from Denmark. For fifteen years prior, he had corresponded with her; however, their true relationship was uncertain. Sometimes, she said that he was her godson. Other times, she said that he was a friend of her late son Hugh. According to her friends, Tondevold appeared to be taking Hugh's place.
In 1951, eighteen-year-old Hugh Berry went into a rage over his inheritance. He shot and killed his grandmother. He was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. Unconfirmed rumors stated that he was lobotomized and sent to Mexico. In January 1963, the Berrys were told that he had died of pneumonia. However, Ellen later hinted that he had committed suicide. Other reports state that he was killed in a knife fight gone wrong. His body was apparently never returned to the United States. When Ellen's husband passed away in February 1978, she was left alone. However, with Tondevold appearing just months later, the void in her life appeared to have been filled. They became close, with him being so well-mannered he fit in with the Knoxville upper crust. After moving into her guest house, he took over the day-to-day operation of her estate. In April 1982, she granted him power of attorney.
In 1983, she rewarded his dedication to her by spending over a million dollars to buy eight horses for him as he said he was a horse breeder. He kept them on her land, naming them all after her with slight variants. Friends of hers were surprised by this generous gesture, but she claimed that that kind of money was insignificant to her.
However, her trust in him was misplaced. In 1984, he talked her into taking a winter vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. Before they left, he composed a classified ad for a chaffeur, asking for men that are single. Interestingly, he also asked that they submit a photograph. He secretly placed the ad in Charleston papers. After the four month vacation, he convinced her to fly back to Tennessee with her hired companion, while he drove the Mercedes back there.
When she returned home from the vacation on March 31, 1985, she found her entire fortune had been depleted. She lost her home and livelihood as a result. Meanwhile, Tondevold turned up one-hundred miles south of Charleston, at an exclusive resort on Fripp Island. Unaware that his secret was out, he continued to spend Ellen's money on her credit cards. When he was told that the cards were over their limit, he left. The next day, a hastily written suicide note and last will and testament were found in his room.
Two weeks later, in a nearby swampy area, a man's body was found, shot once in the back of the head. An antique gun belonging to Ellen was found next to him. A deceased dog was also found nearby. The man carried no identification, but he was carrying Ellen's credit cards. A resort security guard identified the body as Tondevold's. However, the body was quite decomposed at that time.
The body was cremated, as requested in Tondevold's note. His death was ruled a suicide. However, not everyone is convinced that the body was his. Some believe that the classified ad Tondevold posted in the Charleston papers was actually for a lookalike. The theory is that Tondevold took the man to the swamp, killed him, and then placed the cards and gun with the body.
There was also speculation over whether he was actually her long lost son, Hugh, who had been reported as deceased back in 1961. Support for this theory includes the fact that no official record of Tondevold could be found. That, however, changed when his resume was found at the estate. The resume listed his hometown as Las Vegas, Nevada. An Unsolved Mysteries researcher located a 1951 Las Vegas high school yearbook which included a young Dan Tondevold. He is 6'3", 200 pounds, has blue eyes, blond hair, and would today be in his late 70s or early 80s.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the December 4, 1991 episode.
Results: Wanted. Ellen Berry eventually moved into a small apartment in Jefferson City, Tennessee. She passed away in 1992 at the age of 98. If the unidentified body on Fripp Island wasn't his, Dan has yet to be found.
- Dan Tondevold on Unsolved.com
- Ellen Berry Information from Berry College
- Ellen Berry on Find-a-grave