March 22, 2007
RIP, Charles Harrison

Charles "father of Woody" Harrelson, probably the best-known contract killer of the late 20th Century, has died in prison.

Charles Harrelson, 69, was found unresponsive in his cell on March 15 and apparently died of natural causes, said Felicia Ponce, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman in Washington.

Ponce did not know the exact cause of death. Fremont County Coroner Dorothy Twellman did not immediately return a call.

Charles Harrelson was convicted of murder in the May 29, 1979, slaying of U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr. outside his San Antonio, Texas, home. Prosecutors said a drug dealer hired him to kill Wood because he did not want the judge to preside at his upcoming trial.

Charles Harrelson denied the killing, saying he was in Dallas, 270 miles away, at the time.

Wood, known as "Maximum John" for the sentences he gave in drug cases, was the first federal judge to be killed in the 20th century.

Charles Harrelson was transferred to Supermax, the highest-security federal prison, after attempting to break out of an Atlanta federal prison in 1995. Other inmates at Supermax, about 90 miles south of Denver, include Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

Some background on the murder for which he was most notorious is here.

By killing Wood, Charles Harrelson triggered what FBI spokesman Art Werge later called "the largest manhunt ever to focus on El Paso."

Wood was the first federal judge assassinated in the 20th century and Werge said it was the FBI's largest manhunt prior to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

"When this happened, the Chagras were jet-setting to Las Vegas," Werge said in 2003. "One of their lawyers is the (current) mayor of Las Vegas. They were high rollers."

Jamiel Chagra was acquitted of most charges in Wood's death but was found guilty of obstructing the investigation into the slaying and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He also pleaded guilty in a failed 1978 assassination attempt on Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr of San Antonio and was sentenced to life in prison.

Although federal officials had said he wouldn't be eligible for parole until 2009, Chagra was free by 2003 after assisting prosecutors in other cases and entering the witness protection program.

Another family member involved in the Wood case was Chagra's third wife, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Chagra was found guilty of delivering a payment of $250,000 to Charles Harrelson and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 1997 she died in prison of ovarian cancer.

Joe Chagra, Jimmy's younger brother, served six years of a ten-year sentence on conspiracy charges. He died in 1996 in a traffic accident.

An older brother, Lee Chagra, was a well-known criminal defense attorney in El Paso who was murdered during a robbery at his legal office on North Mesa in 1978.

Sounds like quite the family. "Rest in peace" isn't really appropriate here, so I'll just say thus endeth the story of Charles Harrison and leave it at that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 22, 2007 to Crime and Punishment