After snitching, ex-Austin gangster collected reward money, vanished


Austin gangster Jerry Ray James collected big reward in Judge Wood case.

‘Sometimes you have to make a deal with the devil to get things done,’ federal prosecutor says of James.

Johnny Spinelli wasn’t the only one secretly recording on behalf of FBI. A violent and notorious ex-Austinite also wore a wire in an effort to help prosecutors nab Judge John Wood’s killers.

But his life ended very differently from Spinelli’s.

“Jerry Ray James was a vicious, brutal sociopath who didn’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever,” attorney Roy Q. Minton told Jesse Sublett, author of the book “1960s Austin Gangsters.”

RELATED: 40 years on, Crime of Century still binds FBI director, prison snitch

A former high school athlete in Abilene, James had veered into an unrepentant life of crime midway through what’s now Angelo State University, where he’d won a football scholarship. He teamed up with Tim Overton, an Austin High School star who’d won a football scholarship to the University of Texas but also went bad.

The two committed dozens of robberies across the west. Many targets were banks, but not always. Overton and James were widely suspected of breaking into the UT Co-op the weekend of the 1964 UT/Texas A&M University game and walking out with more than $20,000, Sublett reported. The gang kept a stash house in West Lake Hills.

In 1968, James made the FBI’s most wanted list. In 1980, after more than 30 arrests, he was serving a pair of life sentences at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in Santa Fe when the facility erupted in violent riots. While the facility was being repaired, James was sent to Leavenworth, Kan., where he befriended an El Paso drug dealer named Jimmy Chagra.

By then, federal agents suspected that Chagra who, facing serious drug charges in Wood’s court, had hired Charles Harrelson to kill the judge. James cut a deal with the FBI to record his conversations with Chagra.

“Sometimes you have to make a deal with the devil to get things done,” Raymond Jahn, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution of Harrelson and Jimmy Chagra, said in an interview. “If I could have tried the case without him, I would have.”

During the trial, held in Jacksonville, Fla., James testified Chagra told him that he’d paid for Wood’s hit. On cross-examination, Oscar Goodman, Chagra’s attorney, mocked the story.

“What is doing a 30-year sentence without parole like?” he said, according to trial transcripts at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections. “Well, if you listen to Jerry Ray James, it’s not too bad. You walk out in the yard; sit under shade trees; have nice benches; and after you meet a fellow for about 20 minutes, he tells you: ‘You know, I killed Judge Wood.’”

During the trial, Goodman — who later became mayor of Las Vegas — also revealed the astonishing deal James had cut with federal prosecutors.

In exchange for him wearing the wire, then-New Mexico Gov. Bruce King agreed to set aside James’ sentences and release him from prison. James also received half of the more than $200,000 reward money raised by the legal community and the federal government.

In what Goodman called his greatest courtroom victory, Chagra was acquitted of arranging Wood’s murder. He died in 2008 in Arizona, living under the name James Madrid.

James disappeared into the witness protection system.

“He gamed the system,” Goodman said. “He won.”

James’s stepdaughter, Debi Dabbs, who lives in Tennessee, recalled James met her in Atlanta several days after his release. Despite his fearsome reputation, she said that by then, with his belly and white beard, he looked like “a cross between Santa Claus and Burl Ives.”

“He bought me a new car, a red Monza Spyder,” she remembered. He gave her enough money to rent an apartment for six months. They went out for a steak.

James has since reportedly died, a protected witness till the end.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Advocates join effort to fix Austin police DNA lab problems
Advocates join effort to fix Austin police DNA lab problems

As lawyers and scientists continue to review hundreds of criminal cases that might have been affected by the Austin Police Department’s now-shuttered DNA lab, members of a stakeholders advisory group have started meeting to evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid mistakes in the future. The lab shut down in 2016 after a state audit found problems...
Perilous times for historically black colleges
Perilous times for historically black colleges

Two years ago, Amelia Smith received the one thing she thought she always wanted – a blue envelope from Spelman College. She had been accepted to what many consider the finest black college in America. Her grandmother went to Spelman. So did her mother. And her aunt. And her sister, who’s a senior there now. So Smith wasn’t surprised...
UT police investigating domestic assault on campus Friday night
UT police investigating domestic assault on campus Friday night

University of Texas police are investigating an aggravated assault that occurred Friday night in an on-campus dorm, officials said in a safety alert. According to police, a UT student reported being assaulted Friday night by her boyfriend, who is also a UT student. The incident occurred in the Jester residence hall, authorities said. Police said they...
Police searching for man that robbed Northeast Austin bank Saturday
Police searching for man that robbed Northeast Austin bank Saturday

12 p.m. update: Austin police are searching for a man who robbed a Compass Bank in Northeast Austin on Saturday, the second time that bank has been robbed this month, officials said. The bank robbery was reported at 9:09 a.m. Saturday at the BBVA Compass Bank in the 5700 block of Cameron Road, police said. Authorities said a man wearing a mask pulled...
OVERNIGHT: Four injured, some critically, in crash in Northeast Austin
OVERNIGHT: Four injured, some critically, in crash in Northeast Austin

Four people were injured late Friday night in a crash in Northeast Austin, according to Austin-Travis County EMS. The crash occurred shortly before 11 p.m. in the 6200 block of Decker Lane, EMS said. Four ambulances responded and took a total of four people to the hospital, including a woman believed to be in her 20s who had critical, life-threatening...
More Stories