Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. Gary Starts a six-part series documenting the life and crimes of the marijuana smuggler kingpin Jimmy Chagra. In this first episode, Gary starts a story that will eventually end with the 1979 murder of Texas Western District Court of Texas Judge John Wood, aka Maximum John. This investigation became the FBI’s most expensive operation since the JFK assassination. The Bureau collected 500,000 pieces of information, conducted 30,000 interviews, and had hundreds of hours of recorded conversations. In the end, the government convicted Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles Harrelson, of being the trigger puller, Harrelson’s wife for obtaining the murder weapon, a lawyer named Joe Chagra for conspiracy, and Elizabeth Chagra, the wife of marijuana smuggler Jimmy Chagra for delivering the payment to the wife of the hitman, Harrelson. The government charged the mastermind behind this plot, a marijuana smuggler named Jimmy Chagra. Jimmy Chagra hired famous Las Vegas mob lawyer Oscar Goodman, and in Goodman’s biggest win ever, the jury found him not guilty. Folks, get ready for a ride because I am taking you down many twists and turns through the seamy underbelly of the southwest Texas underworld.
To give you an idea of where we are going, let’s start back to the 1960s.
The 1960s counterculture demanded Marijuana, and the descendant of a Lebanese Immigrant started smuggling marijuana and made millions. His brothers, Joe and Lee Chagra went to law school and practiced criminal law in El Paso. Lee Chagra became the go-to lawyer for drug smugglers along the border. Richard Nixon started the war on drugs. An attorney named James Kerr went from private practice into the U.S. attorney’s office, and he is assigned to a court overseen by a hanging judge named John Wood, aka Maximum John, because of the draconian sentence he hands down. Jimmy Chagra is bubbling to the top of the DEA hit list because of his larger-than-life persona and gambling habits in Las Vegas. A tip to all you big-time criminals, keep a low profile.
This story contains the attempted murder of AUSA James Kerr outside his home, the murder of Lee Chagra shortly after, the arrest of Jimmy Chagra, and the murder of Judge John Wood. The investigation of these events was the most extensive and expensive FBI investigation since the JFK case in 1963. They will conduct over 30,000 interviews, gather 5000,000 pieces of information, and record hundreds of hours on hidden microphones and wiretaps.
I will start with El Paso because that city is just as much a character in this story as the individuals.
El Paso has long had the reputation as a wild west kind of town. El Paso earned this reputation over its long checkered history. It is an old town, and the Spanish built a mission here in 1659. El Paso del Rio Grande del Norte, or the Pass of the Great River of the North, became an important trading center on the south bank and will be renamed Ciudad Juarez. After Sam Houston and other settlers fought off Mexican troops, they formed the nation of Texas. Missouri merchants split off from the Sana Fe trail to carry trade goods to Juarez and south to Chihuahua City. Smugglers, bounty hunters for Comanche and Apache scalps, gamblers, and adventurers found a home in El Paso. Of all the old west cities, only El Paso maintains the reputation of being a wild city in modern times. At one time, the Director of U.S. Customs said that if he stopped all smuggling through El Paso, the economy of both sides of the border would collapse. DEA made El Paso the center of all their nationwide intelligence gathering about the international narcotics smuggling trade.
The 1970s Drug scene
During the 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, the United States started the never-ending war on drugs and promoted draconian laws to deal with drug organizations called Kingpin laws. He created a new agency called Drug Abuse Law Enforcement or DALE. Later administrations renamed it the DEA. These were some of the first federal organizations to form task forces with local police. In the Kansas City Police Department, several undercover cops were assigned to DALE, and the stories that filtered back were crazy. These guys were getting into shootouts, fraternizing with informants, spending government money like there was no tomorrow, and operating with little adult supervision. But they were effective. I remember making a call at a well-known heroin dealer, user, booster, and professional criminal’s house. The dispatcher called and asked me to meet the DALE agents, and upon arrival, I saw a couple of guys in an early 70s Chevrolet Nova. They had the dealer, Frank Clayton, handcuffed in the back seat. One yelled out to watch the house because they would seize it as they drove off. I remember Frank Clayton had a petrified look on his face. They never came back, and after a while, I just left and went back to making calls. The last I remember, the Claytons still lived in that house.
The man at the center of this story was Jimmy Chagra.
Jamiel or Jimmy Chagra was born and raised in this wild west city of El Paso. His grandparents and many others from Lebanon and Syria immigrated to Mexico around 1900. Chagra’s grandfather, Joseph, joined Pancho Villa in the border area around Juarez and El Paso. Mexican Federales arrested him and his wife, Marian, bribed the prison guards, escaped, and fled north of the border. A little-known fact is the original name was “Busha’ada.” Jimmy’s grandfather worked odd jobs and was even a Sheriff’s deputy in El Paso. He started a successful produce stand across the street from the courthouse.
December 7, 1944, Josephine and Abdou Chagra had three sons, and Lee Chagra was the eldest, then Jamil Jimmy Chagra, and finally, Joe Chagra was the little brother. Abdou Chagra was a Lebanese rug merchant family. Jimmy became a drug smuggler, and his brothers became attorneys for drug smugglers.
As a young man Jimmy went into the family carpet business. Jimmy Chagra was not a nice guy, or no es muy simpatico, as we might say in Spanish. His parents invested a lot of money in a carpet store for him to run, and his inattention drove it into bankruptcy. The Chagra store’s motto was, “A floor without a rug is like a kiss without a hug.” He married then dumped his wife and kids without explanation. He was verbally abusive, a sick gambler, a complainer, and often pouted when he did not get his way in family situations. But he could be charming, and they always forgave him. Jimmy started running a floating blackjack game and was making trips to Vegas.
The family began hearing rumors of drug smuggling, and Jimmy Chagra started spending enormous amounts of money on gold jewelry, Lincoln Continental cars, and private jet trips to Vegas. All without any actual job. These events put drug smuggler Jimmy Chagra and Federal Judge Maximum John Wood on a collision course.
Let’s take a look at how Jimmy Chagra got started.
In the 1960s, Jimmy got a phone call that would change everything. It was from his buddy Pete Krutschewski. Pete had served two tours in Vietnam and flown Cobra helicopters. These guys were the Maverick-type pilots of the Vietnam War. The army awarded Pete the most awards for the bravery of any Cobra pilot. He couldn’t find a job when he returned to an ungrateful nation. Pete Krutschewski recruited Jimmy to go into the marijuana smuggling business. He theorized they could do well with Jimmy’s border connections and Pete’s flying skills. The Chagra brothers were successful criminal defense lawyers so they could help with connections. In 1969 marijuana smuggling from south of the border is a new business filling the demand for good pot. The Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock Generation was taking drugs, and Marijuana was the most popular drug. Folks that wanted Marijuana, pot, doobie, weed, or whatever they called it, discovered the higher quality grown in Mexico. Most people had been smoking ditch weed, which had little THC content, so most of the early marijuana highs were from the alcohol they consumed along with the pot. People used to come to the Midwest and harvest ditch weed because we had a lot of it growing along railroad roadways, fencerows, and many other places. Hemp was a cash crop in the Midwest during the 19th century. Locally they sold it, and any high was false. Outsiders wanted it to dilute the more expensive Mexican or Jamaican weed.
Jimmy and Pete made a Mexican connection and rented a plane. They flew down and bought 700 pounds of grade-A weed. They delivered it to a group of trust-fund hippies in Aspen. They cleared $85,000 on the transaction. Jimmy Chagra would never look back. Over the next ten years, Jimmy and Pete and a band of renegades became probably the largest marijuana smugglers in the world.
Their empire grew to a fleet of six planes and four freighter ships. They had the prime minister of the Bahamas, Lynden Pindling, on the payroll to allow their ships safe passage through the Bahamas. They also paid DEA officials and border cops to look the other way. Jimmy even cut a deal with Mafia crime boss Raymond Patriarca to allow his ships to unload their cargo along the Massachusetts coastline.
For those that remember, Mexican Weed was out in the late 1970s and early 1980s and became a new ditch weed because Colombian weed started coming in, which had a much higher THC content. Jimmy Chagra stayed on top of his market like any good businessman and watched for trends. As the demand moved to Colombian weed, he traveled to Colombia. Jimmy Chagra made a good connection. Colombian Cocaine was starting to filter into the US during this time. As the American demand grew, the smuggling business became quite lucrative.
Jimmy Chagra had a huge appetite for action, and when he wasn’t dealing with Colombian traffickers, he loved Las Vegas. In his book Dirty Dealing, Gary Cartwright writes that Jimmy had a gambler’s instinct and was fatalistic about winning or losing. Playing craps, He would put ten grand on the pass line, and if he got a number, he put 10 K more behind the line and 10 k on the come. Then if his dice got another number, he put 10k more on that number and 10k on the come. If he kept the dice, he repeated the same series of bets each time he got a number. He might run through a million dollars in five minutes one way or the other. He was well known for bringing in footlockers filled with cash and handing it to casino cashiers for counting and depositing in his gambling account. This was before the CTR law.
In 1975, Jimmy Chagra teamed up with two other El Paso smugglers, Jack Stricklin and Mike Halliday. They put together the biggest pot smuggling adventure known at the time. And they never got caught on this one. My next episode will be an interview with Kermit Schweidel, who participated in that operation. He wrote a book titled Folly Cove that details this smuggler’s dream of an operation. The proceeds from Folly Cove and the myth around it made Jimmy Chagra a legend among drug smugglers. And we all know what the government thinks about criminals who become legends. They take them down. So come back and listen to the inside story of the largest pot smuggling adventure known to the public.
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