- Eric Dexheimer American-Statesman Staff
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.”
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.