“Well, he is in prison right now for the killing of a federal judge. I think that it was not a fair trial, especially because the guy who supposedly hired my father to commit the murder was later acquitted, when on a re-trial.”
This is how Woody Harrelson, the Texas-born actor, answered an interviewer’s question about his father being sentenced to prison for murder when Woody was seven years old. Harrelson rarely speaks about his estranged father and the events of May 29, 1979.
That is the day when U.S. District Judge John Howland Wood, Jr. was murdered in broad daylight in front of his home in San Antonio. Harrelson’s father was arrested and convicted for the crime.
Howland, also known as “Maximum John,” a judge from Texas notorious for his practice of giving severe sentences to drug traffickers, had been assigned to preside over the much-awaited drug-conspiracy trial of Jimmy Chagra (Jamiel Alexander Chagra), “the undisputed marijuana kingpin of the Western world,” when he was shot and killed by a single rifle bullet just days before the trial was about to begin. Chagra, clearly, was the prime suspect.
After an extremely difficult, thoroughly planned, and financially draining $11 million’s worth of criminal investigation, Chagra was arrested for ordering the murder, and Charles Voyde Harrelson, Woody’s father, for landing the killing blow. But the drug lord was later acquitted. Chagra was never held accountable for his involvement as a conspirator and later on was lost without a trace in the anonymity of the Federal Witness Protection Program, allegedly for helping out in other cases.
Nonetheless, Charles Harrelson, known to the police as an encyclopedia salesmen turned contract killer who had been recently released from prison for committing murder on the orders of a murky businessman named Sam Degelia in 1968, was found guilty of murder and conspiracy once again. In 1981, was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, in addition to the five added for obstruction of justice.
“Woody, do you think your father is innocent of that second murder? That’s what I’ve heard.” Harrelson: “I’m not saying my father was a saint, but I think is innocent of that, yeah.”
Even though, at the time of his arrest, Harrelson had admitted he was the one who pulled the trigger, when it came to the trial, he steadfastly denied any involvement in the killing of the judge. And continued to deny it ever after. Harrelson stated he was high on cocaine and out of his mind at the time of his arrest, which is why he made such outlandish claims.
Jimmy Chagra’s brother, Joe (Joseph), a former Texas lawyer, testified against Harrelson in court. ”I asked him if he was the one who murdered Judge Wood, and he said he was.” Not only that, but according to Joe Chagra’s testimony, he advised his brother to hire Harrelson and paid him $250,000 to do the job. Jimmy got a separate trial from the others in Florida, and Joe didn’t testify at his brother’s trial. He made a plea bargain so he would not be called as a witness. Without enough evidence, Jimmy was found not guilty.
“Are you trying to have the case opened up, trying to have it investigate it, trying to set him free?” Harrelson: “Well, lets put it this way. I haven’t given up hope. Yeah.”
While Harrelson was serving his time, he claimed that he only bragged about killing the judge so he could swindle the Chagras for the hitman fee. The evidence on which he was sentenced was a taped discussion held between the brothers during one of Joe’s prison visits in which Harrelson was mentioned as the killer. He insisted he was set up. Twenty years later, when Jimmy Chagra, who himself was serving time on charges of drug smuggling and conspiracy to murder U.S. Attorney James Kerr, was released from an Atlanta prison in 2004, he stated that the actual killer was not Charles Harrelson but some other individual.
This is when Woody Harrelson tried to get his father a new trial where Jimmy Chagra would finally testify and tell the truth. “I tried for years to get him out. To get him a new trial,” Woody said in an interview he gave to the Guardian in 2012. “I’ve spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall.” It was to no avail. A new trial was never allowed, and Charles Harrelson died in prison from a heart attack in 2007, a year before Chagra died from cancer, thus taking the “truth” literally to the grave.
“You said once, that you thought your father was a CIA operative, yes? ” Harrelson: “Yeah, he was.”
The crimes that Charles Harrelson are convicted and accused of are shocking enough, but rumor has it he is also mixed up in one of the most tragic events of the 20th century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Conspiracy theorists believe that Charles Harrelson was actually one of the “Three Tramps,” along with Charles Rogers and Chauncey Holt, who on November 22, 1963, were photographed under police escort, and allegedly arrested right after the assassination. There are reporters who believe that he really was the shooter, and not Lee Harvey Oswald, that Harrelson, posing as a tramp, was behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll that the president drove by.
Perceptions changed in 1989, when the Dallas Police Department released a statement confirming that the three men, the three tramps shown in the photos, were in truth John F. Gedney, Gus Abrams, and Harold Doyle. Jim Marrs, a journalist for the New York Times, still claimed that Harrelson was the youngest and the tallest of the three in the pictures. Many experts who compared their pictures also found a striking resemblance. Adding that allegedly he was associated “with criminals connected to intelligence agencies and the military,” as well as being a close friend of Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Oswald and was believed to be connected with high ranking government officials involved in organized crime. But this was never proven and his son was not willing to get into it.
“How do you know, what proof?” Harrelson: “Ah see, I shouldn’t get into that right now, this is when where we gonna get into trouble.”
There is no proof that Charles Harrelson was trained by the CIA or if he was in Dallas that day. But what stands today as truth is that Charles Harrelson was held accountable for two murders and was a paid assassin by all reports.
As for his son, well he turned out to be a natural born killer. Or at least he acted the part of one onscreen, in Oliver Stone’s motion picture from 1994. It was Stone who three years prior to this movie release filmed JFK, which gathered a lot of conspiracy theories, including those in Jim Marrs’ book Crossfire, and caused quite a stir when it was released.