Jimmy Chagra, an El Paso grocer's son who learned to roll dice so well he could store his winnings in a footlocker and have a casino pick up his meal and drink tabs, left for Las Vegas this week a convicted felon facing a life sentence.
He was convicted on drug smuggling charges by a federal court jury. One Nevada gaming official said this could earn him a place in the state's "black book" of prohibited gamblers and casino owners. The conviction was a watershed in a war on drugs led by federal authorities convinced that the stakes for narcotics kingpins such as the 34-year-old Chagra do not stop at the felt-topped tables.
An impassioned closing argument by Las Vegas attorney Oscar Goodman, who has defended many individuals accused of organized crime connections, could not persuade the jury to acquit a man who listed his occupation on income tax forms as "professional gambler."
One of the defense witnesses, a dice table operator at Caesars Palace, told about the night Chagra lost $915,000 at craps and paid it all back right away in cash.
Another defense witness, Jack Binion of the Horseshow Lounge, testified that Chagra has won $2 million at his club this year.
When the former El Paso carpet dealer, the middle son of Lebanese immigrants, took the stand in his own defense, the jury was able to judge for itself the credibility of Chagra's claim that he earned his living as a Las Vegas high-roller, not as the kingpin of a drug ring that imported cocaine and marijuana from Colombia and Mexico.
"Growing up in El Paso," Chagra said, "if you don't gamble, (if) you're not in the carpet business . . . everyone assumes that you're doing something illegal on the border. Most of my friends have been there, they've been arrested for smuggling grass."
Chagra denied knowing some of the alleged accomplices the government had persuaded to testify against him with grants of immunity and reduced sentences.
Goodman, in his closing argument, stressed inconsistencies in the testimony of the chief prosecution witness, Henry Wallace, who said he was Chagra's principal partner in a burgeoning drug-smuggling enterprise.
Goodman described Wallace's testimony as "whatever his cocaine-rotted mind wanted him to tell us."
He called Wallace, who had once convinced drug agents in New Orleans to return $114,000 in cash he had with him at the time of an arrest on cocaine charges, "a man who would sell his mother's soul for $114,000."
Goodman also pointed to the immunity granted all of the main government witnesses, several of whom confessed they continued illegal activities even after agreeing to cooperate as informers.
Prosecutors admitted that Wallace was a big-time drug smuggler, but said their case rested on Chagra being an even "bigger fish." The government, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Karl Pierce, "cannot find angels as witnesses to the deals that Jimmy Shagra made in Hell."
Chagra's deal is now in limbo, as trial Judge William Sessions awaits a probation officer's report before deciding on a sentence.
The federal code dictates a sentence of at least 10 years, but Chagra may receive up to life without probation or parole, plus a $100,000 fine and forfeiture of whatever assets government accountants can link to his illegal enterprises.
In Las Vegas, where only last fall Chagra was flown in by chartered jet to gamble and eat and drink at a casino's expense, the manager of Caesar's Palace said the conviction would not automatically put a damper on his credit.
But, said witness Harry Wald, Chagra will have to register with the sheriff as a convicted felon and then, "We'll have to hear what the sheriff has to say."
Jack Strappon, a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission, which screens owners, employes and gamblers for influences that "reflect badly on the state of Nevada," said Chagra's conviction could result in his listing in the commission's black book of banned figures.