Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. In this sixth and final episode of the six-part series documenting the life and crimes of the marijuana smuggler kingpin Jimmy Chagra, Gary tells tells about the trial, imprisonment and death of Jimmy Chagra.
Hey all you wiretappers welcome back to the end of Jimmy Chagra. A little recap, Jimmy Chagra was the son of Lebanese immigrants who settled in El Paso after the last Mexican Revolution. His brothers Lee and Joe both became successful Texas criminal attorneys specializing in defending smugglers. Jimmy Chagra makes connections with Colombian marijuana growers and starts exporting shiploads of high grade Colombian weed landing on the East coast. After losing a couple of shiploads, a couple of planes and a pilot, he throws in with another smuggler. This partnership goes south, and the new partner starts informing and setting up Jimmy Chagra. In November 1978 someone ambushes US Attorney James Kerr as he drives away from his El Paso home. Kerr has been on a crusade to put together a conspiracy charging Jimmy and his brother Lee Chagra under the narcotic kingpin laws. In November 1978, someone fires several rounds at James Kerr as he leaves his El Paso home. One month later, A couple of off-duty solders rob Lee Chagra at his law office and murder him. Jimmy Chagra is distraught after the murder of his brother and suspects the Feds may have orchestrated the murder of his brother. He makes some vague threats and names Judge John Wood as the possible man behind the murder of his brother.
In March of 1979, 3 months after Lee Chagra’s murder, El Paso cops arrest the suspects. One confesses and shortly after everybody knows this was a run of the mill robbery planned by the uncle of his brother’s landlord who hired a couple of soldiers from nearby Ft. Bliss to do this robbery. No big dastardly federal plot here. But Jimmy has other worries. The Feds have indicted him and many others in his network and he is arrested about the same time. Of course, this case will be heard by Maximum John Wood and prosecuted by James Kerr. The government ensured that Judge Wood will preside over Jimmy’s trial because they indicted him in Midland Texas. Maximum John hears all the criminal cases in the Western District of Texas.
Jimmy’s main relief from his grief is the action around the table in Las Vegas. He does not believe the men really confessed to robbing and murdering his brother Lee and suspects a government coverup. He is arraigned in Judge John Wood’s court. The US Attorney removes James Kerr from this prosecution. The new attorney reindicts Jimmy Chagra in El Paso and adds the continuing criminal enterprise and designates him the Kingpin. These charges can result in life in prison. He is out on bond when the Benny Binon hosts a month’s long poker game between Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss. This game will be the inspiration for the World Series of Poker. Las Vegas is hopping. Binon’s Horseshoe is the only casino left that will take Chagra’s crazy giant plays. He would arrive and place 100 K on a blackjack table and demand to risk it on one turn of the cards. Binon claimed later that between the time the court released Jimmy on bond and his trial, the Horseshoe lost 2 million dollars to Jimmy Chagra. Everybody noticed he played as if there were no tomorrow. Jimmy noticing the recent publicly generated for Oscar Goodman, he hired him for his El Paso case. Jimmy’s brother, Joe Chagra, joined Goodman on the defense team. I read that Jimmy really wanted his brother Lee and was distraught about his murder. Joe Chagra filed a motion for Judge Wood to recuse himself because of public remarks made by Wood. It seems he had called this case “The Colombia connection” case and was known to leak derogatory information to the media. A year before, Judge Wood had remarked to Lee Chagra in open court, “I imagine everybody in this area knows you are the subject of a grand jury investigation in Tennessee.” Very poor ethics to state this in open court. Oscar Goodman filed for a change of venue and other motions designed to get the case away from Maximum John.
Gary Cartwright in his book Dirty Dealing writes, “Chagra meets a woman he knew as Jo Anne Star in the Horseshoe and she introduces him to a sandy haired man he does not know and stated this was her new husband, Charles Harrelson.” They talk about the murder of Lee Chagra for a few minutes and Harrelson ask Jimmy what he is going to do about it. Cartwright writes that Harrelson and his wife follow Jimmy to a craps table and a witness claimed he saw Jimmy give Harrelson his dice and asked him to throw them. He lost 50K on that roll but ended up winning 350K that day. The next day witnesses reported that Chagra and Harrelson are seen talking again. Jimmy supposedly asked him if he could have a television if he ends up at Leavenworth. Harrelson laughs and tells him no. Jimmy replies, “What if I buy everyone in the prison a TV?” Jimmy starts inquiring from his friends about Harrelson and what kind of man was he and of he was “OK?” I think we all know what that means. It will come out later that Harrelson, his new wife Jo Anne and another guy were plotting to get Jimmy in a card game with some rigged cards to cheat him. During this time, some other Vegas gamblers who were purported friends of Harrelson got Jimmy in a golf game where they cheated him with a guy hidden on the golf course around where blind shots landed and they moved the ball from the original lie. Reportedly, they took him for aver ½ million on this golf game. I think everybody knew he was going down and would not be around to retaliate so they plucked his feathers.
Since the attempt to murder James Kerr, the US Attorneys and federal judges all had extra protection. Judge Wood allowed this for a while but soon dismissed his extra guards away from the courthouse. He would tell his clerk, “Well if they are going to kill you, they are going to kill you, so let’s get to work.”
May 5, 1979, 3 months after Jimmy is charged in his court and a year after the attack on James Kerr and the murder of Jimmy Chagra’s brother, Judge john Wood walks out of his El Paso condo to find a flat tire on his wife’s station wagon. As he walks to his other car parked in front of his condo, a sniper draws his bead and shots Maximum John in the back, killing him instantly.
Later, cops figured it was well planned because someone had flattened the station wagon’s tire and forced Judge Wood to take his sedan which was parked in an exposed spot. Directly across the driveway from Wood’s townhouse, the family of U.S. judge Adrian Spears, chief judge of the district and Wood’s close friend, watched from their breakfast room window as Wood walked briskly to the sedan parked in front of his townhouse. He frequently drove his station wagon, but this morning it had a flat tire. He slipped behind the wheel and tried to start the sedan. Nothing happened. The motor was dead.
A neighbor watched Wood get out of the car and lean across the front seat to retrieve his briefcase. Then he heard a noise. “It sounded like a backfire,” he said. “A loud backfire.” Another witness remembered: “I saw Judge Wood step backward. I didn’t know he was shot. There was no blood or anything. Then he sort of twisted around and fell on his back.”
The neighbor telephoned the police and ran downstairs and across the driveway to where Wood lay, next to the open door of the sedan. “There was no one in the area, no one at all,” he said. “No moving cars, no people, no more noise after the shot.”
He later reported that Wood’s eyes were open, but he didn’t speak or move. He couldn’t see any blood, or any other injury to Judge Wood. John Wood was killed instantly by a high velocity large caliber bullet fried from a sniper rifle.
The killer had disappeared into the heavy flow of morning traffic along Broadway. It had been a clean, perfect shot. He’d watched Wood quiver for a fraction of a second, then drop in his tracks.
The case against Jimmy Chagra was grinding on with jury selection and preliminary motions while the FBI was conducting a massive investigation into the murder of Judge John Wood. The man who will later be appointed FBI Director, Judge William Sessions took over the Chagra drug case. He ordered that neither attorney make any reference to the Judge Wood murder. Even with that, the jury could not fail to see the press reports and the lawyers had to deal with it during jury selection. As a defense, Jimmy’s new lawyer, Oscar Goodman, painted Jimmy Chagra as a professional gambler who might have known or brushed up against the many characters testifying against him and painting him as a drug Marijuana smuggler and drug kingpin. He was out on a $400,000 bond posted by an El Paso bondsman who will later claim that Chagra gave him over a million in diamonds as collateral to post the bond. Jimmy tried to bribe one of the witnesses and failed. In the end, a jury found him guilty on all counts and he disappeared. The DEA found him quickly, and Judge Sessions gave him 30 years.
The investigation of Judge Wood’s murder really takes off while Jimmy Chagra is inside the walls at Leavenworth. Charles Harrelson was telling people he shot Judge Wood. A mutual friend of Harrelson and Jimmys other lawyer brother Hoe Chagra set up a meeting between the tow of them and they started hanging out and snorting cocaine together. Joe confided that the feds were looking closely at his brother for Wood’s hit. Gary Cartwright in Dirty Dealing claimed that Harrelson told Joe he was a suspect himself and he needed “fade the heat.” Harrelson had several cocaine and weapons charges and he hired Joe Chagra. The main thing they did was snort cocaine together from Harrelson’s endless supply. He even offered to take Wood’s murder to save Jimmy. Cartwright claimed Charles Harrelson was s[pinning out of control and becoming paranoid during this time.
Whenever a huge case that generates heat and headlines, the tipsters, crazies and all other goofies come out of the woodwork. The bad tips roll in, the scammers try to get the reward and in this case it was $125K from a citizen’s association and the FBI would have been good for another 6 figures. The FBI gent in charge was a cracker jack investigator named Jack Lawn. I found way too many different stories to repeat on this podcast. One of the first promising leads was from a dude trying to get out of jail named Robert Riojas. He supplied them with information about some Texas gamblers and professional criminals who stayed a few days at a beach resort just across a small bay from Judge Wood’s resort home. This checked out. Jack Lawn never liked the guy’s stories because most of them were too far-fetched. The name he was interested in was the long-time south Texas killer, the man who once showed around a business card claiming he was a hitman, was Charles Harrelson. I have a suspicion that Harrelson’s name was on the lips of every snitch on this Texas gambling and drug dealing underworld. As Jack Lawn studied Charles Harrelson’s history, he liked him more and more. During the months after this assassination, Harrelson was on a drug crazed crime spree and had several Texas state charges pending. By early September Harrelson was in custody. He had been hallucinating that DEA agents were watching and following him. He was driving on a West Texas I-10 in a Corvette shooting cocaine when he stopped to check on a loose muffler. He tired a repair by shooting it with a .44 Magnum pistol. He shot out the rear tire. Passing motorist called the cops about a man standing by the highway with a gun to his head. The highway patrol arrived and ended up in a 6-hour standoff with Harrelson holding the gun to his head. They called his girlfriend to the scene, and she persuaded him to surrender. The troopers will report that Harrelson confessed to the murder of Judge John Wood, but he also confessed to killing John Kennedy. While Harrelson is in jail for a bunch of state charges, he is looking at a long time in state prison. He had spent most of his prison time in Leavenworth and liked Leavenworth. This supposedly prompted him to call an assistant US Attorney and offer to confess to the murder if the prosecutor agreed he could serve life in Leavenworth. While in jail, when he realized that law enforcement was not taking his confession seriously, he called back and gave them a clue. He verified a crime scene detail that law enforcement held back from the media. He said the Judge’s station wagon had a flat tire. This got their attention.
Harrelson’s lawyer worked to make sure he was indicted by the Feds and not by the state because that took the death penalty off the table.
Behind the Walls at Leavenworth, Jimmy Chagra was playing high stakes gin with another inmate and once had to get his wife, Liz Chagra wot take $43,500 to a relative of this inmate to pay off his gambling debt. A shot caller named Jerry Ray James transferred into Leavenworth and befriend Chagra. He immediately launched into supporting Chagra’s dreams of getting out early as a way to earn his trust. James was a career criminal who was very practiced at getting people to talk about their crimes and he commenced to skillfully get jimmy on the subject of Charles Harrelson and the judge’s murder. Jimmy supposedly started bragging about his part in this murder to James. Joe Chagra was vixsiting Jimmy and his wife Lize was too. The FBI had the visiting room wired for sound.
Those tapes would reveal Jimmy was still setting up dope deals though his brother Joe. They discuyssed Harrelson because by now they knew the feds were looking at him Jimmy told Joe they should have him killed in the Harris County jail. They discuss Jimmy’s plans to escape by a helicopter landing in the yard and then a light plane to Mexico. His end game there was to relocate his dope business to southeast Asia and resume his kingpin status. One conversation had Joe saying, “I thought you would get someone from the Mafia to do it. Jimmy replied that he thought about doing that and ended with “What difference does it make.”
He is telling Jerry Ray James he wants certain people killed on the outside because they are failing to pay him money they owe.
BY the end the FBI had over 1000 hours of taped conversations. They used one conversation between Joe and his brother Jimmy to try to turn Joe because it implicated Joe into the murder of Judge Wood. He refused to cooperate.
The FBI got a tip on a possible gun. An informant told them that Charles Harrelson had bought a .240 caliber Weatherby Mark V about 2 weeks before the murder. They found 250 gun dealers in the southwest that had sold this rifle. They found a Dallas sporting goods store that was sold 12 days before the murder to someone named Faye L. King at a non-existent address. They noticed the name also was faking. They believed this was Harrelson’s wife JoAnne Harrelson. They found her fingerprints on the purchase documents and a handwriting analysis showed she was the person that signed for the gun. They learned a couple of boys found the stock from this exact gun along a creek, but the rest was missing.
The FBI learned that Harellson sent his stepdaughter to collect $250,000 from Jimmy’s wife, Liz Chagra during this time.
Finally, the government indicted jimmy’s wife Liz Chagra, his brother Joe Chagra, Charles Harrelson’s wife JoAnne, Charles Harrelson and Jimmy Chagra for a variety of charges but only Charles and Jimmy for the actual murder and the others for abetting and covering up evidence.
At trial Joe will cop a plea for 10 years and testify against Harrelson. Jimmy’s wife Liz and Harrelson’s wife were both convicted and got some time but not a lot. Harrelson already had something like 30 years in Texas state convictions and he got life in Federal prison. Joe refused to testify against his brother. Oscar Goodman was Jimmy’s lawyer. Judge Sessions gave a change of venue to Florida and at Jimmy’s trial several months later, the jury acquitted him. But he still went back to serve out his 30 years from his last drug conviction that started this whole mess. Joe served only 6 years and he was killed in a car wreck in 1997. Jimmy’s wife Liz got 30 years for conspiracy, and she died in custody of cancer in 1997. JoAnne Harrelson got a lot of time, I don’t know what happened to her. Jimmy served many years in the federal prison system and was released on parole in 2003. The El Paso Times reported that he was widely believed to have been placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program. He died in 2008. He was living under the name of James Madrid at a trailer camp in Mesa AZ.
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