Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. We last heard the inside story of the enormous Folly Cove marijuana smuggling operation. Gary continues this six-part series in Part 3 where he tells several harrowing stories of Chagra’s bold marijuana smuggling capers.
In the Fall of 1976, we can see the beginning of the end for Jimmy Chagra. At that time, Jimmy made friends with two Las Vegas-based private pilots that often flew him to Vegas on gambling junkets. He recruited Jerry Wilson and Dick Joyce pilots to help fly in loads. Wilson will go on to invent and become fabulously wealthy from inventing the Soloflex. Chagra recruited these two pilots to fly Colombian weed from the Cayman Islands. They were both private pilots in Las Vegas, and Jimmy had used their air service when he flew back and forth between El Paso and Las Vegas on gambling junkets. By 1976, Jerry Wilson was flying a DC-4 and Dick Joyce a Cessna 310. The DEA had put trackers on other planes used by these men, but not the new DC-4 and Cessna. In December 1976, DEA and Customs had information Chagra was expecting shipments from Colombia, and they were probably going to a rural area around Ardmore, Oklahoma. This is a middle size town about halfway between Ok City and Dallas Ft. Worth.
On December 30, 1976, Dick Joyce landed his Cessna 310 in New Orleans, told Customs he was coming in from the Cayman Islands, and headed to Ok City. Agents found no drugs on this plane. They alerted DEA and an army of DEA and Customs agents, and the Air Controllers went on the alert as Joyce took off. They tracked him as he headed north through Texas. At about the same time, other air traffic controllers had a request from a DC-4 for a place in Texas to refuel. A DC 4 is a huge plane with 4 propeller-driven engines. The pilot claimed he was carrying Radioactive waste. Th DC-4 landed, refueled, and took off again before anyone could get there. Next, Ft. Worth air controllers saw blips for two planes traveling parallel heading north. One was a DC-4, and the other was Dick Joyce in his Cessna 310. Customs and the DEA were all over this. Joyce and Wilson were using a known scam called the piggyback formation. A plane with a known destination would fly close to the plane carrying the contraband to appear as one plane. When they reached the destination, the aircraft with the narcotics drops down quickly while the other empty plane continued the planned route. It was New Year’s Eve, but the DEA assembled a large ground crew who drove to Ardmore, OK, and alerted the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigations. This combined force blasted in the early morning hours toward Ardmore. The DC-4 lost one engine, and for unknown reasons, both planes landed at a small airport just south of Ardmore. This gave the agents the exact location. When they arrived, the cops stopped 4 U-Haul trucks and drivers with the marijuana. They caught the pilots and two others driving away from the scene in rental cars. The authorities arrested ten men and recovered 17,000 lbs of pot in 276 burlap bags. The searches on the U-Haul trucks were shaky, and they would have difficulty linking the pilots with the planes. They missed Jimmy Chagra at the scene. Jimmy’s brother, Lee Chagra, will coordinate the legal defense.
Before the El Paso 10 trial, as they became known, another unfortunate event occurred in Colombia. The Colombians fronted the load lost at Ardmore, and Jimmy had to make good. The Colombian supplier was Lionel Gomez, who operated out of Santa Marta, Colombia. This small city on the northeast coast is one of the points nearest to the Caymans and other Caribbean Islands. Chagra sent one of the Ardmore defendants, Jerry Wilson, and another pilot down to get another load. This plane was overloaded, and they crashed on takeoff. Wilson was injured but not badly, while the co-pilot burned over 70% of his body and was taken to a local clinic. The Colombian authorities arrived quickly, but the load disappeared. They took Wilson and his injured buddy into custody. Jimmy was in Atlanta waiting for this load. His Colombian contacts alerted him back in the States.
Jimmy Chagra flew into action. He phoned a private airline service owner in Las Vegas and chartered a plane. He knew the owner would help after he gave him a cover story that a former employee of the owner named Jerry Wilson had been badly burned in a car wreck in Colombia. He asked the owner to send his pilot to El Paso, pick up Jimmy’s passport, and then pick him up in Atlanta. Once they picked up Jimmy, he instructed the pilot to take him to Miami, where they were to pick up two paramedics with medicine to treat burns.
Just an aside, when Wilson claimed he was quitting this charter service, he said he was going into business with Lee Chagra to promote his invention, the exercise machine. As I said last week, Jerry Wilson will go on to success with the Soloflex.
The story changed when Jimmy and the two paramedics arrived in Santa Marta. Jimmy left them at the airport, and an ambulance showed up. The paramedics found a burned man inside, and they treated him the best they could and learned this was not Jerry Wilson. The fact was that Jerry Wilson had jumped out, but the other pilot was burned horribly. Jerry Wilson was in jail, and Jimmy had gone to the prison to bribe him out. The ambulance returned to a hospital, and Jimmy bribed the police to get him some painkillers. The Colombian authorities arrested Jimmy, the charter pilot, and the two paramedics. The Colombians notified the DEA, and they investigated but could not locate the crashed DC-6 together. The injured pilot died. The Colombians took everybody to Bogota, where they were interrogated in separate cells for a couple of weeks. Eventually, Jimmy bribed the right people, and after he paid them $10,000, they returned all of them to Santa Marta and Lionel Gomez. Jimmy frantically made promises to make up all the Ardmore Oklahoma loss, and this loss was because once he took custody of the fronted dope, he became responsible. The owner of the air charter service paid a $150,000 bribe to get his pilot, and the two paramedics returned.
The original plan was to disguise Jerry Wilson as the burned pilot and bring him back. Jimmy knew that the owner of this air charter service knew and liked Wilson, so he would be likely to help. Ultimately, Jimmy Chagra, Jerry Wilson, the two paramedics, and the charter pilot flew back commercially. The Colombian government kept the air service plane for two years.
Jerry Wilson appreciated the fact that Jimmy flew into action and came to the rescue, even at his own peril. But he will later say after he left this life, “Jimmy always paid himself first.” Degenerate gamblers like the Chagra brothers require a steady supply of cash. Frank Sinatra once said about Las Vegas, “LAS VEGAS IS THE ONLY PLACE I KNOW WHERE MONEY REALLY TALKS, IT SAYS ‘GOODBYE.”
Jerry Wilson returned just in time to show up for his trial in Ardmore Oklahoma. He tried to keep the Colombian story on the down-low, but Jimmy was crowing to everybody he knew about this adventure.
The Black Striker as Lee Chagra was known came to the rescue of the El Paso 10 in Ardmore. He dazzled and danced around the local prosecutors easily because the evidence was slim. He blew into this small town wearing his Texas-sized cowboy hat with the words FREEDOM and LEE CHAGRA embossed in gold on the brim. He wore thousand-dollar boots, a white suit, and carried a gold cane. When one of the agents testified they found marijuana seeds and stems inside and under the airplane, he asked why this evidence had not been photographed, collected, tested, and placed into evidence. The agent could only shrug his shoulders because they had not found this evidence. The cops testified that before they arrived onto the airport property, they observed men off-loading something into the U-Haul trucks that they caught later in the vicinity filled with sacks of pot. Lee Chagra forced them to admit there was a hill on the approaching road that prevented anybody driving in to see the tarmac until they were very close. Each time Chagra discredited a government witness, he winked at the jury and they seemed to enjoy his show. By the time the jury retired, they were so conflicted that they argued for two days and reported back they were deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial. Two months later the prosecution made many of the same mistakes and a few more. The next jury contained a hippy who smoked pot, a mother whose daughter had been prosecuted for possession of a small amount of pot, and a man with strong anti-government sentiments. This jury acquitted all defendants.
Jimmy Chagra and his brother Lee were spending money like there was no tomorrow. For Jimmy, he was still smuggling big loads via freighter like the one in the Folly Cove Story. Lee was not doing as well because he was spending more than he could earn as a lawyer. The new prosecutor James Kerr was teaming up with the Hanging Judge John Wood to put pressure on the El Paso drug smugglers. The government started using the new Drug Kingpin laws to expose the defendants to long sentences like 25 years up to life. Judge John Wood was happy to give out those sentences after conviction. The DEA was squeezing folks with the threat of these sentences. They were turning to look at Jimmy Chagra and his brothers Lee and Joe (both drug lawyers).
In the summer of 1977, Wallace, aka The Fat Man, and Jimmy do deals, and Jimmy gets over on him. Wallace brings down Jimmy. Jimmy Chagra was forced to become a glorified mule in a smuggling operation headed by Southwest dope czar Henry Wallace. He had scored big from the Folly Cove boatload of Colombian weed, but he proceeded to blow everything and then some in Las Vegas. He had lost the big shipment in Ardmore Ok and then lost the load in Santa Marta, Colombia shortly after. He owed Lionel Gomez a lot of money for these two lost shipments. As a result, these events forced him to work for Henry Wallace.
Wallace had an intact organization but only had contacts for the unpopular Mexican weed. Jimmy had Colombian contacts; it was a marriage made in heaven but ended in hell for Jimmy Chagra. Wallace and Jimmy made a deal that Jimmy would go to Florida and get a plane and secret landing location while Wallace went to Colombia and contacted Lionel Gomez to front fifty kilos of cocaine. They planned to use the money made from this venture to finance more shiploads of Colombian marijuana. Chagra did not want Gomez to know of his involvement, so Henry Wallace went to Santa Marta to make the deal. Gomez was tired of being burned by these Americans and refused. Wallace found another Colombian named Jose Barros to front the cocaine. He refused to give him 50 kilos but got another dealer named Paul Ruiz to front 6 kilos, provided Wallace remained in Colombia as a hostage until they were paid. The pilots landed in Colombia with no trouble but on their way north, mechanical problems forced to land in the Bahamas on Great Inagua. Jimmy was already in the area and scarfed up another plane to take the coke on into the US. More bad luck followed when they fronted this cocaine to others, and they found it was poor quality and never paid. Henry Wallace in in Colombia trying to convince Jose Barros and another Colombian named Raul Ruiz that if he will do another marijuana deal, he will be more than repaid for this loss. Chagra was working in the US to make this happen. He was able to send Wallace’s wife and child to Colombia to keep him company. WTF?
Wallace convinced Barros and Ruiz to front 30,000 lbs. of marijuana and provide a ship for an upfront payment of $100,000.
Jimmy Chagra was also working another deal at the same time. He had been flying over the Bahamas and he found several mother ships who had missed their offloading contacts. They were obvious because they anchored outside of shipping lanes. Jimmy knew he was treading on thin ice but he figured if he took the marijuana and sold it, he could locate the real owners and work out the financial details. He found one of these ships and convinced them to let him start offloading marijuana. The Coast Guard was locating these same ships, but the magical Jimmy Chagra got away with 24,000 lb. before they arrived. The captain told the Coast Guard what happened. This will be one more nail in the coffin of Jimmy Chagra. To let you know how much they were smuggling, the Coast Guard seized another 100,000 pounds.
Wallace was in Colombia overseeing the loading of over 50,000 pounds of marijuana on the Dona Petra. Raul Ruiz and Henry Wallace flew to Miami to meet Jimmy where they promised to pay him for the missing 6 kilos. Jimmy had $40,000 and promised to get the rest later in the week. His other marijuana deal from the stalled freighter was paying off, and later in the week, he was able to take care of Ruiz. Wallace found out about this other deal and was furious that Jimmy had not cut him in.
To add insult to injury, the Coast Guard intercepted the Doña Petra anchored 55 miles east of Miami. They seized the vessel and its load of Colombian weed.
Chagra wrote off the loss of the Doña Petra because he did not make this deal, Henry Wallace was the man on the spot with the Colombians. Jimmy Chagra had already found a new Colombian named Theodoro as a source of supply.
Wallace called a meeting of the other participants and left Chagra out. They felt he was the reason the Colombian deal got screwed up. Wallace met with Ruiz and gave him enough money to keep dealing, and he started setting up a New Orleans operation to smuggle marijuana. He was a heavy user of cocaine and an alcoholic. One day, he left the New Orleans Hilton and rammed his rental car into the hotel’s limo. He drunkenly tried to “buy” the limo, and they called the cops. They arrested him and found $114,000 on his person. That screams big-time drug dealer to cops everywhere. They took him in and called the DEA. During their questioning him about where he got this money, he started talking about Jimmy Chagra. When they showed interest, he agreed to help set up Jimmy if they released him and gave the $114,000 back. He also gave them the Colombian Raul Ruiz, who was still in Miami. He still owed Ruiz over 2 million, which would take care of that debt nicely. The end of the famous Chagra brothers was set in motion, and they never knew what was coming. If they knew, I doubt they would believe it. Jimmy was riding high, wide, and handsome. He had married a beautiful girl named Liz. They were staying at the Sinatra Suite at Caesar’s Palace. The place that took trunk loads of dope money weighed it and deposited it in accounts for dope dealers. Lee was the most famous narcotics defense lawyer in the United States maybe. His brother Joe was practicing law with his brother and planning on investing in a disco club. Judge John Wood is giving out draconian prison sentences. One old Mexican National standing in front of Judge Wood once complained about his 40-year sentence and said, “I don’t think I can do that much time.” Judge Wood replied sarcastically, “Well, Try!”
GET READY FOR EPISODE FOUR THE LEE CHAGRA MURDER AND CHARGING OF Jimmy under the kingpin law
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