By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008
Jimmy Chagra, a flashy, high-stakes gambler and drug kingpin who was implicated in the 1979 assassination of a federal judge in Texas, died July 25 of cancer at a Mesa, Ariz., hospice. He was 63.
Mr. Chagra was accused of masterminding the hit on U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr., who was killed with one shot from a high-powered rifle outside his San Antonio townhouse. Mr. Chagra was facing trial on drug charges before Wood, known as "Maximum John" for the long sentences he routinely handed down to drug dealers.
Mr. Chagra was acquitted on murder charges in the judge's slaying but received 10 years for obstruction of justice. He later pleaded guilty to participating in a failed 1978 attempt to kill a federal prosecutor in San Antonio.
The convicted hit man in the Wood killing was Charles V. Harrelson, a contract killer, gambler and the father of actor Woody Harrelson. The elder Harrelson died in federal prison last year while serving two life sentences.
Born Jamiel Alexander Chagra in El Paso, Mr. Chagra was the middle son of a Lebanese American rug merchant. Texas writer Gary Cartwright described him as "the bad penny" in a family whose two other brothers grew up to be lawyers.
He idolized his older brother, Lee, a flamboyant El Paso lawyer who graduated at the top of his University of Texas law school class and built a lucrative career defending drug dealers. He was murdered during a Christmas Eve robbery of his law offices in 1978. According to Cartwright, the murderers' haul, $450,000, was money Jimmy Chagra owed mob boss Joe Bonnano Sr. for a busted drug deal.
The youngest brother, Joe Chagra, also an El Paso lawyer, served 6 1/2 years in prison for his alleged role in the Wood assassination.
As a young man, Mr. Chagra tried to run the family carpet business, but it went bankrupt, so he became a gambler. Soon, Las Vegas casino owners were rolling out carpets of their own -- red ones -- for "Jim Alexander," Mr. Chagra's Las Vegas pseudonym. At Caesar's Palace, where he lived as a guest during the construction of his huge Las Vegas home, he occasionally won or lost $1 million a week on craps or cards.
Mr. Chagra reportedly got into drug smuggling in a big way in 1975, using a tramp steamer to transport loads of marijuana from Colombia to the United States. According to Cartwright, author of "Dirty Dealing: Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border and the Assassination of a Federal Judge -- An American Parable" (1996), he actually got his start after dropping out of high school.
"They were these young hotshots on the border. They called themselves scammers," Cartwright said. "It was nickel-and-dime stuff, and then it began to escalate. They flew Cessnas and smuggled bluejeans, quicksilver and people. Then it became marijuana and cocaine."
Federal agents tried for years to amass enough evidence to convict Mr. Chagra and succeeded in winning two indictments from separate grand juries in early 1979. He was arrested in Las Vegas, and Wood scheduled a trial for May 29, 1979, in Austin and then postponed it until Aug. 1.
On the day the trial was scheduled to begin, the judge was fatally shot.
According to court testimony, Mr. Chagra was in a Las Vegas casino before the trial and was brazenly complaining about Wood when someone pointed out Harrelson as a known hit man. Mr. Chagra, according to Cartwright, followed Harrelson into the men's room and offered him $250,000 to kill the judge.
Mr. Chagra initially denied involvement, but in July 1979 he told his brother Joe in a conversation the FBI taped that he had hired Harrelson to do the job.
Three months after Wood's slaying, Mr. Chagra was convicted on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise. Afterward, he skipped out on a $40,000 bond and became a fugitive for about six months. A month later, he was sentenced to 30 years on drug charges.
He was freed on parole in 2003 and was widely believed to have been placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Mr. Chagra's sister, Patsy Chagra of El Paso, said in a phone conversation yesterday that he was not in the witness protection program at the time of his death. El Paso writer Richard Baron told the Associated Press that Mr. Chagra was living under the name James Madrid at a trailer camp in Mesa.
Survivors include seven children, Patsy Chagra said, but she did not know their last names.
Mr. Chagra's third wife, Elizabeth, was found guilty of delivering $250,000 to Harrelson to kill Wood. She was sentenced to 30 years and died in prison in 1997 of ovarian cancer.
His brother Joe was killed in a car crash in 1996.
"We were a good family -- that's what people forget," Joe Chagra told Cartwright shortly before his death. "But the real downfall of our family was the money. You can't know what it does until it happens to you . . . until everyone is chin-deep in millions."