Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. In this second episode of the six-part series documenting the life and crimes of the marijuana smuggler kingpin Jimmy Chagra, Gary tells tells about the life and death of Lee Chagra, Jimmy Chagra’s brother and lawyer. But first we learn about the attempted murder of the Chagras’ nemesis, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr and shortly after someone murders Lee Chagra.
Hey Wiretappers, welcome to the ongoing series on the shenanigans of the El Paso drug smuggler Jimmy Chagra. By now as a little recap, Jimmy Chagra was born to Lebanese immigrants in El Paso Texas. He started his life working at his parent carpet store. Kind of a cliché, a Lebanese rug merchant. His two brothers, Lee and Joe Chagra become well respected and almost famous drug lawyers. As best as I can tell, neither of them became involved in the drug smuggling ventures of Jimmy. But Lee was a flamboyant degenerate gambler, and he ran though a lot of dirty money from other smugglers. Lee’s main nemesis was a Texas Assistant U.S. Attorney or AUSA named James Kerr. The Judge he practiced in front of was John “Maximum John” Wood. Jimmy has earned millions from his ventures smuggling high grade Colombian marijuana up the Atlantic Coast to New England where they off-loaded into a safe house and distributed it throughout the United States. He had a bad year in 1977 where he lost two airplanes and a lot of dope. He threw in with another smuggler and made an enemy. Fellow smuggler Henry Wallace ended that year working with the DEA to make a case on Jimmy Chagra. The Federal law enforcements in the southwest circling around the Chagra enterprise.
James Kerr had been a young Department of Justice attorney how had written the continuing criminal enterprise section of the 1970 Drug Control Act. The Department of Justice moved him to El Paso to prosecute these drug conspiracies and he found a friend in Judge William Wood. Some lawyers would even later say they thought the two were too friendly and often saw them socializing together away from work. They both hated drug dealers and were on a warpath to rid the country of this scourge. James Kerr learned that Lee had been charged in Tennessee for a conspiracy to distribute marijuana after he had defended a local smuggler. The Tennessee court quickly dismissed this charge after Lee asked for the production of evidence and got a hearing. The only evidence of Lee Chagra’s involvement was the unsubstantiated word of one defendant about a meeting at Chagra’s law office. Kerr was looking at the entire Chagra family as part of a conspiracy, so he traveled back to Tennessee to review this case. He was convinced that Lee Chagra was the actual brains behind his brother, Jimmy, Jack Stricklin who was involved in the Ardmore bust, and others. He pulled a little-known section from the 1970 Drug Control act that gave a road map how to prosecute a drug organization as a Continuing Criminal Enterprise with a special sentence for the person deemed as the Kingpin. That is what they used on my friend Steven St. John to get him 12 years. He was offered many chances to talk, and he refused.
The US Attorney called a special grand jury to investigate this conspiracy and the Chagra’s knew that the government was declaring war on them. James Kerr would not finish what he started.
On November 21, 1978 AUSA James Kerr was driving his one luxury he permitted himself, a Lincoln Continental. A series of gunshots ran out from a van causing him to dive down onto the floorboard. When he peered out, he could see nobody. Responding El Paso cops find his car had been riddled with .30 cal. bullets and buckshot but none of them struck Kerr. A AUSA like Kerr could have many enemies and the FBI and local cops asked informants and did an area canvass and came up empty, except for a possible suspect van.
On December 28, just 37 days later, Lee Chagra answers the buzzer and allowed a young Black man into his office. He thought he knew this man had been referred by somebody and wanted to talk about a will.
Flashback to October 1978, the Feds had charged a Chagra family friend with smuggling and in a separate case, they charged a man married to his sister, Patsy Chagra. They pressured the family friend to testify about the Chagras but he refused and took a 30 year hit. Lee Chagra defended his sister’s husband and got all charges but one count dismissed. Lee Chagra was in ongoing vicious legal battles in Judge Wood’s courtroom. He was getting paranoid because he was getting reports the feds were focused on him and his brother. He was gambling frantically to achieve some relief from all this pressure, and he was losing much more than he could afford. The reality was, James Kerr was wrong, and Lee was merely a well-paid lawyer for dope smugglers. He complained that he was being followed. Several casinos stopped his line of credit. Lee reported to friends that he thought someone was following him.
The morning of December 28, 1978, a man had called and gave the secretary the name of David Long. Lee talked to the man, and something was said about him coming to the office. On this day Lee’s wife was at a Sun Bowl party and he said he needed to remain at work but would be home later. That morning, Lee was in good mood. He called several people and guys started dropping by and Lee would give them cash. His secretary said he kept a sack with as much as 300 400 thousand just to pay off gambling debts as people came in to collect. One of his drug dealer clients was newly out of jail and he picked up a thousand dollars. By the afternoon, The Black Striker was alone in his office when someone buzzed for entry. He assumed it was this David Long with a will problem. He was watching this Sun Bowl game on television in an apartment he maintained above his office when he buzzed the man up the stairs. When Lee Chagra looked down, saw a young lean muscular black man coming up the stairs. When the man arrived, he pulled a gun. Since the police did not find any signs of a struggle, I believe he probably shot him right away. Most of the file and desk drawers were pulled open. The usual bag of cash was missing.
Lee Chagra’s funeral was attended by people from the entire social strata of southwest Texas. The Most Reverend Sidney Metzger, bishop emeritus of El Paso, came out of retirement to say mass. Texas State senator Tati Santiesteban, led the procession of pallbearers. The local district attorney, several district judges, and a former mayor attended. On the other end, Vegas gambler like Sailor Roberts and gambler Amarillo Slim were there. Of course, 12-15 convicted dope dealers. Jimmy Chagra showed up dressed in a white suit, wearing black cowboy boots and a black cowboy hat with Lee Chagra and Freedom on the brim. I believe he carried the black cane with a gold handle. He was the Black Striker and sent a message how important his brother was to him.
Months later authorities solved this murder. The man who owned this office building had a neer do well brother named Lou Esper. Like everyone else in and around Lee Chagra’s office it was easy to know that he kept a lot of cash at the office.
After the suspects were arrested, It was learned they were two soldiers from nearby Ft. Bliss. They implicated Lou Esper as the man who had planned the heist and supplied the weapons. The triggerman David Leon Wallace signed a confession. He also affirmed Lee Chagra’s paranoid fears that someone had been following him because he and his partner, Don White had done just that. The court sentenced David Wallace to death. Wallace later got his sentence commuted to life. His partner, Don White, is still doing 60 years. Lou Esper got fifteen years. None of the missing money was ever found.
So now, the DEA, Customs, IRS and Us Attorney are all lined up to take out the Chagras. The AUSA responsible James Kerr has been ambushed and was lucky to escape with his life. A month later someone murders Lee Chagra. Jimmy Chagra is distraught. He suspects everybody and nobody. He is crazed that the feds have done this as revenge for the attempted murder of James Kerr. He blames Judge Wood because he sees Wood as the Kingpin of the law enforcement effort to take him down. It will be during this time; he will make comments about how he would like to see Wood killed. Remember this because it is key to my theory that Chagra did not pay the actual murderer of Judge Wood.
During 1978 the government and James Kerr will hear grand jury testimony about Jimmy Chagra and his drug smuggling ring. Jimmy continued smuggling and gambling in las Vegas. He was so flamboyant that he demanded to be housed in the Sinatra suite until his multi million dollar las Vegas house is finished. In February 1979, the Feds arrest Jimmy Chagra and his case will end up in the court of Maximum John Wood.
Next week We will discuss the murder of John Wood, the evidence, the eye witness, and the various suspects the FBI documented in the most expensive investigation since the JFK assassination. The FBI conducted more than 30,000 interviews related to the case and in total collected more than 500,000 pieces of information. The investigation cost more than $11 million
This episode is brought to you by BetterHelp. Remember to click on www.BetterHelp.com/gangland for 10% off
Subscribe to the Podcast for a new gangster story every week.
Support the Podcast.
Hit me up on Venmo for a cup of coffee or a shot and a beer @ganglandwire
Click here to “buy me a cup of coffee”
To go to the store or make a donation or rent Ballot Theft: Burglary, Murder, Coverup click here
To rent Brothers against Brothers, the documentary, click here.
To rent Gangland Wire, the documentary, click here
To buy my Kindle book, Leaving Vegas: The True Story of How FBI Wiretaps Ended Mob Domination of Las Vegas Casinos.