Home From the Magazine Uncommon Criminal: Charles Harrelson

Charles Harrelson, the father of famed actor Woody Harrelson, was involved in American organized crime and convicted of assassinating federal judge John H. Wood Jr., the first federal judge killed in the 20th century. Interestingly enough, Charles Harrelson spent his formative years in Houston County.

During his life, Charles Harrelson had been described as “a pathological liar, cocaine addict, card cheat, prison snitch, Lothario, and cowardly killer.” Most of all, he was notably an “opportunist.”

Charles Voyde Harrelson was born in Huntsville, Texas, on July 23, 1938, to Alma Lee Sparks and Voyde Harrelson. He was raised in and has strong family ties to Lovelady. He also attended school in Lovelady, Texas. Norma Dell Jones’ mother taught Charles Harrelson in school, and Norma Dell reported that he was not a bad student and never really caused any problems. When Harrelson left Lovelady, he headed west to California. Before entering into a life of crime, Harrelson worked as an encyclopedia salesman and as a professional gambler. In 1960 he was convicted of armed robbery, which was the beginning of his downward spiral.

In 1960 he was convicted of armed robbery, which was the beginning of his downward spiral.

When looking for information about Harrelson as a contract killer, many articles try to link Charles Harrelson to the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Harrelson, himself, even boasted on several occasions of having assassinated John F. Kennedy, claiming to be one of the three tramps hiding in a boxcar on the railroad tracks behind Dealey Plaza just after the shooting. However, on other occasions, he denied these claims. Many books written about the JFK assassination include conspiracy theories of Harrelson’s participation in the murder of the beloved president. And while it has been widely and loosely circulated that Harrelson, Charles Rogers, and Chauncey Holt were the three tramps arrested in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963, in 1992 the Dallas Police Department revealed that the three tramps in fact were Gus Abrams, John F. Gedney, and Harold Doyle.

According to Woody Harrelson, Charles disappeared from the family’s home in Houston in 1968, leaving his wife to raise Woody (7) and his two brothers, Brett and Jordan. Later that year, Charles Harrelson was tried for the murder of businessman Sam Degelia Jr. in a contract killing in south Texas. The first trial ended in a mistrial. Harrelson was tried again in 1973 and found guilty. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released within 5 years with time off for good behavior.

Many books written about the JFK assassination include conspiracy theories of Harrelson’s participation in the murder of the beloved president.

In 1979, it is believed that drug dealers paid Harrelson $250,000 to assassinate federal judge John H. Wood (known as “Maximum John” because he handed down tough sentences to drug traffickers). On May 29, 1979, Wood was shot and killed outside his Alamo Heights townhouse. Supposedly Charles Harrelson assassinated Wood in a contract killing instigated by Texas drug lord Jamiel (Jimmy) Chagra, who was then awaiting trial before Judge Wood. Charles Harrelson’s family had lost track of him until 1981 when the news broke that he had been arrested for the murder of Judge Wood.

Allegedly, while Jimmy Chagra was awaiting trial in early May 1979, he was introduced to Charles Harrelson at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. Harrelson returned to Texas a few days later. Motel and telephone records proved that Harrelson had begun stalking Judge Wood.

On May 17, Harrelson’s wife, Jo Ann, purchased a .240 Weatherby mark V rifle, scope, and ammunition in Dallas under the alias Faye L. King.

On May 29, 1979, Judge Wood was shot in the back in front of his townhouse parking lot. He died at 8:30 a.m. from a single rifle shot as his wife Kathryn cradled his head. No one saw the gun or the gunman. No one was seen racing from the scene. The investigation became the most extensive and the most expensive in the history of the FBI. The Justice Department exhausted more than $11 million and tens of thousands of hours during an almost three-year period.

If not for their egos, the two men may never have been prosecuted. They reportedly admitted their involvement with Judge Wood privately to their underworld associates and cellmates. Then in August and September of 1980, while he was fleeing from weapons, drugs, and gambling charges filed in Houston, Harrelson made two confessions to Wood’s murder. The first he wrote on a desk calendar in a Houston motel room, “I, Charles V. Harrelson, killed John H. Wood, Jr. acting solely on my own.” The second confession took place while he was threatening suicide and holding off police for six hours along Interstate 10 outside the city of Van Horn. However, in each event, Harrelson was high on cocaine, which he mainlined.

The case began to break for the feds when they persuaded a convict to wiretap conversations with Jamiel (Jimmy) Chagra who was then serving time in Leavenworth, Kansas, on drug kingpin charges. While Jimmy Chagra said he hired and paid Harrelson, there was never any proof that Chagra and Harrelson had an explicit agreement. Only Jimmy Chagra and Harrelson knew the truth and neither had a shred of credibility. To get the proof they needed, the government persuaded Joe Chagra (Jimmy’s brother) to wear a wire for wiretapped conversations that could be used in court.

Charles Harrelson

When Harrelson was being prosecuted on the firearms, narcotics, and gambling charges, his lawyer sought out the FBI and said that his client was willing to plead guilty to killing Judge Wood in exchange for less than a life sentence in a federal prison and the understanding that he would not implicate anyone else.

Although Jo Ann Harrelson, Charles’ wife, claimed Charles was at home when she awakened before 9 a.m. that morning, it is believed that Harrelson drove home to Dallas to solidify his alibi for the time of the murder. Jo Ann was arrested and charged with conspiracy.

Finally, in April 15, 1982, Harrelson, Jimmy Chagra, their wives, and Joe Chagra were indicted. The prosecution used a taped recording of a conversation that occurred during a visit from Joe Chagra to his brother Jamiel Chagra in prison. Harrelson claimed at trial that he did not kill Judge Wood, but merely took credit for the killing so he could get the large payment for the killing. In court Joe Chagra testified that he asked Harrelson during a meeting in March 1980 whether he had killed Wood or not and Harrelson said that he had and that he had then driven from San Antonio to Dallas afterward.

Jo Ann Harrelson divorced Charles shortly after she was sent to prison. She later admitted she used a fake name to buy the rifle but said she doubted it was used in the Wood murder and maintained that Charles was in their Dallas home when she awakened between 8:40 a.m. and 9 a.m. on May 29, 1979.

Harrelson received two life sentences based on the tape. Both Harrelson and Joe Chagra were implicated in the assassination, and Joe Chagra received a 10-year sentence. Jamiel Chagra was acquitted of the murder when his brother refused to testify against him. In a plea bargain, Jamiel Chagra admitted to his role in the murder of Judge Wood and to the attempted murder of a U.S. Attorney. Later Joe Chagra recanted his previous statements and stated that someone other than Harrelson had in fact shot Judge Wood.

Harrelson was sent to the Eastham Unit in his hometown of Lovelady, where he maintained that he was the patsy in a government-organized conspiracy to cover up the real killers. He served 7 years, 8 months and 28 days of his 20-year sentence for firearms and drug convictions in Harris and Culverson counties. TDC spokesman Charles L. Brown stated in an interview that while Harrelson could not be described as a model prisoner, he had not caused any problems other than an escape attempt. Harrelson was suspected of planning an escape from the Eastham Unit in 1984 with a pair of smuggled guns, a foreign sports car, and $500,000 in cash. While no evidence or weapons were ever found, the possibility of the attempt resulted in his being transferred to the high-security Ellis I Unit.

To serve his two life sentences in the Judge Wood case, Harrelson was sent to the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and then later to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he and two other inmates, Gary Settle and Michael Rivers, attempted an escape on July 4, 1995, using a makeshift rope. A warning shot was fired at them from the prison’s tower and the trio surrendered. Harrelson was then transferred to Supermax prison ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado.

In interviews, Woody Harrelson revealed that he visited his father regularly in federal prison, though he still harbored mixed feelings for him, saying, “My father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known. Still, I’m just now gauging whether he merits my loyalty or friendship. I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father.”

Harrelson’s boot used to smuggle drugs.

It has been reported that Woody Harrelson financed an appeal in 1997 filed by his father on the grounds that he did not receive a fair trial in the Wood case, and with his brothers he attended the federal court proceedings in Texas and Colorado. This appeal as well as another appeal filed in 2003 was rejected, and in 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider Charles Harrelson’s claim.

Charles Harrelson passed away at the age of 69 on March 15, 2007. He was found unresponsive in his cell, having died of severe coronary artery disease.

Over the years, Charles Harrelson has become one of the more iconic prisoners to be housed in the Eastham and Walls Units, partially because of his criminal history and possibly because of his famous actor son. Many items belonging to Charles Harrelson while he was imprisoned at Eastham and the Walls Units can be seen on display at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, including a cane with a shank and a shoe with a hollowed out heel in which to smuggle drugs.

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