Thursday, May 28: Oscar’s “Case of the Century”: The Life and Crimes of Jimmy Chagra — Courtroom Conversations
- Acquitted of hiring actor Woody Harrelson’s dad to murder Judge “Maximum John” Wood
- Got off on a once-in-a-lifetime ‘miracle’ defense by attorney Oscar Goodman
- Spearheaded one of the biggest drug-smuggling rings in the country
- Bet millions and tipped big, a Las Vegas high roller
- Had links to New England’s Patriarca crime family
- Lived a life surrounded by mobsters, murder, career criminals and conspiracies
- Oscar Goodman, who represented Chagra
- Journalist Jack Sheehan, who interviewed Chagra extensively
- Moderator Geoff Schumacher, director of content at The Mob Museum
CHAGRA: LIFE IN LAS VEGAS AND MARIJUANA KINGPIN
In the 1970s, Jimmy Chagra was the marijuana kingpin of the Western world. He built a marijuana and cocaine smuggling operation with connections to Colombia and Mexico. Chagra’s operation had links to the Patriarca crime family in New England.
Chagra was once held by Colombian authorities after his drug-smuggling plane crashed there.
Jack Sheehan calls him “the Pablo Escobar of weed. He was bringing in freighter ships of marijuana in the ’70s.”
Chagra made frequent trips to Las Vegas, arriving with suitcases stuffed with millions of dollars in cash. He enjoyed a high-rolling lifestyle at Caesars Palace and Binion’s Horseshoe but he was not a very good gambler. He lost millions at the craps tables as well as in gin rummy games and on golf courses. The casinos loved him, of course, and their dealers loved him, too, because he was a big tipper.
Once he paid off a cocktail waitress’ $50,000 mortgage when he heard she was raising three kids on her own.
Chagra and his wife, Liz, and young daughter relocated to Las Vegas in 1978 and moved into a house across the street from attorney Oscar Goodman.
In 1979, a federal grand jury in Midland, Texas, indicted Chagra on drug smuggling charges. Oscar Goodman and Joe Chagra were Jimmy’s attorneys.
CHAGRA: ASSASSINATION OF JUDGE JOHN WOOD AND LINKS TO CHARLES HARRELSON, FATHER OF WOODY
Midland was in the jurisdiction of U.S. District Judge John Wood, known as Maximum John for his tough prison sentences in drug cases. When Chagra’s former drug-smuggling partner Henry Wallace turned and became a witness, the charges against Chagra were increased and he faced the prospect of life in prison without parole. While awaiting trial, Chagra came into contact with career criminal Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson, in Las Vegas. They talked about assassinating Judge Wood.
May 29, 1979: Wood was shot to death outside his San Antonio condo.
Allegations arose that Chagra hired Harrelson, the actor Woody Harrelson’s father, to commit the murder.
CHAGRA: FLIGHT AND CAPTURE
Meanwhile, the drug trial was held before Wood’s replacement, U.S. District Judge William Sessions. The jury found Chagra guilty. Chagra was let out on bail and he disappeared. He set up his family on a farm in Kansas. He could have gone unnoticed for a long time, but he couldn’t resist going to Las Vegas to see a cosmetic surgeon. A police officer stopped his car. The officer didn’t recognize Chagra, but Chagra revealed himself by saying, “I give up.”
CHAGRA: FROM THE COURTROOM TO PRISON TO NOT GUILTY TO DEATH
Sessions gave Chagra 30 years on the drug charges, and he was sent to Leavenworth. The visiting room was bugged to gather information from mobster Nick Civella, also a Goodman client. The bug picked up Chagra talking with his wife and brother Joe about the judge’s murder.
The feds indicted Jimmy Chagra, Charles Harrelson, Joe Chagra, Liz Chagra and Jo Ann Harrelson in the judge’s murder. In a plea agreement, Joe Chagra got a 10-year sentence. Charles and Jo Ann Harrelson and Liz Chagra were convicted at trial. Liz got a 30-year sentence. Jo Ann got a 25-year sentence. Charles got double life sentences.
Jimmy Chagra’s separate trial moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Goodman faced a monumental task to win the case. It was a David vs. Goliath battle. But he had some luck when the prosecutors decided to put criminal Jerry Ray James on the stand to testify against Chagra. James had a deal to receive $250,000 from the government if Chagra was convicted. The prosecution produced no murder weapon or any eyewitnesses.
Prosecutors made a diorama of Wood’s condo complex to show how the murder occurred. Goodman recognized the error of their plan when the trees in the scale model had no leaves on them. But they would have had leaves on them at the time of the murder, rendering the witness testimony not credible.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, the kind of drama that usually took place only in an episode of ‘Perry Mason,’” John L. Smith wrote.
Goodman made a six-hour final argument without a break. The jury started deliberating on Feb. 3, 1983. A few days later they returned a not-guilty verdict to the murder charge. Judge Sessions gave Chagra only 10 additional years on his sentence, making him eligible for parole in 2007.
Chagra also was a prime suspect in the attempted murder of Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr of San Antonio.
Later, Chagra admitted to the judge’s murder and to the attempted murder of Kerr in an effort to free his wife from prison. But his wife was not released and died of ovarian cancer at age 41.
Chagra went into the Witness Protection Program in Arizona, and remarried. In 2006, he did some videotaped interviews with Las Vegas journalist Jack Sheehan.
Chagra died in 2008.
Image of Jimmy Chagra in handcuffs courtesy of the Las Vegas Review-Journal
OSCAR B. GOODMAN
Former mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman is credited with the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas including The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and our very own The Mob Museum. Goodman is one of the nation’s best criminal defense attorneys and was named one of the “15 Best Trial Lawyers in America” by the National Law Journal. He spent more than 35 years defending some of the most notorious alleged Mob figures, including Meyer Lansky, Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Jimmy Chagra. In 1995, he appeared as himself in the movie, “Casino.”
Jack Sheehan has been living and writing in Las Vegas for 40 years. He has published 21 books and screenplays, including many on Las Vegas history and historical figures. He won the first ever Nevada Screenwriters Award in 1988 and the Lowell Thomas Award for outstanding travel writing in 1991. One of his many screenplays details the life of notorious drug smuggler Jimmy Chagra.