- Patrick Beach American-Statesman Staff
Jimmy Chagra was a lot of things: a high-rolling gambler who chummed around with celebrities in Las Vegas, probably the biggest pot smuggler in the Western world and a father to children he arguably adored and unarguably failed.
But, speaking to his ex-wife, Vivian, in a federal prison more than 30 years ago, he said he was not a killer. He swore he did not put out a hit on “Maximum” John H. Wood Jr., the federal judge in San Antonio presiding over a case that could have sent Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra to prison for life. Hitman Charles Harrelson — actor Woody Harrelson’s father — assassinated Wood outside the judge’s home in May 1979.
“As far as having Wood killed, no way,” he said. “I didn’t have Wood killed. But let me add, he had a lot of enemies.”
Those words, that adamant denial, were lost until this year’s Halloween floods in Central Texas displaced them from the attic of Jim McCulloch’s home on Bluff Springs Road in Southeast Austin, where for decades the transcribed words of Chagra’s ex-wife and the federal prisoner had been stored, then forgotten.
To get to that part of the story, we have to go back in time, to the war on drugs that Richard Nixon initiated, and to three brothers in El Paso of Lebanese descent by way of Mexico. With its confluence of shady border business opportunities, affairs, greed, drugs, gambling and sibling rivalry, the tale seems to have been fated to play out exactly the way it did: with Jimmy, his second or third wife and Jimmy’s brother Joe all sentenced to federal prison; with a third brother, Lee, murdered in his office days before Christmas 1978; with Vivian and her three daughters in the witness protection program; and with one generation of a family forever splintered by the grave misdeeds of the one preceding it.
Two of Chagra’s daughters, Christa and Catherine, now live in Smithville. A third, Cynthia Jones Chagra, lives in Austin. All have, understandably, complicated feelings about their father.
All three believe he would never have gotten into the dope business without the contacts of Lee, a lawyer who seemed drawn to shady characters along the border, where smuggling was the economy. Further complicating the relationship between the two brothers was that Lee, who was married, had an affair with a woman who worked the switchboard at the Sheraton Hotel in El Paso and, after cutting off the relationship, or at least attempting to, introduced her to Jimmy in order to keep her close. That woman was Vivian, Christa and Catherine and Cynthia’s mother, who came from humble beginnings in an unincorporated community near Brownwood. An inextricable connection, whether emotional or physical or both, would continue between Lee and Vivian long after Vivian and Jimmy were married, Catherine would later learn.
“The bell boy warned me of (Lee’s) reputation as a gambler, and that he was known to like women,” Vivian Chagra would tell her friend and former anthropology professor Kay McCulloch, in an interview for a book project on which the two were collaborating. “I think I was about 20 and Lee was 27 or something. … Lee wanted to be head of the family, and Jimmy was constantly jealous of Lee because he stole the glory that Jimmy wanted. They were rivals in many ways.”
And co-conspirators in others. Jimmy Chagra’s first big score came in the summer of ’75, when he orchestrated a shipment of more than 50,000 pounds of pot on a tramp steamer from Colombia to the Massachusetts coast, according to “Dirty Dealing,” a book about the Chagras published in 1984 by Austin author and journalist Gary Cartwright. The deal made guys sweating over a ton of weed loaded onto a plane and flown across the border look like chumps. And the caper made the money flow. As in:
Here’s a picture of Jimmy in Vegas with Muhammad Ali, both in black tie. Here he is with Joe Namath. With Redd Fox. Here’s Catherine Chagra with Ann-Margret. Here she is with Paul Anka. Here she is in the Sinatra suite at Caesars, the tacky wallpaper so thickly felted it practically had to be brushed. Marble floors. Push a button and curtains would reveal a huge projector TV. Jimmy would tip the hotel staff like a salesman with an end-of-the-month goal handing out business cards. He named two of his chows “Kilo” and “Poker.”
“Look how sweet and dorky and innocent I look,” Catherine Chagra said. “And he’s this huge drug kingpin. Most high rollers would think a 9-year-old would cramp their style, but he took me everywhere.”
Oh, yes. In these pictures she’s 9 or thereabouts. With virtually unlimited spending at the hotel, and often left to entertain herself, she’d go down to the lobby and buy so many toys that security had to haul them back to the suite.
With the gambling and the ostentatious living, the money never lasted long. Jimmy was known to win or lose $1 million a night, according to Catherine.
“He couldn’t have flushed it down the toilet faster than the way he gambled it and lost it,” she said. In prison, Jimmy would say he got hooked on gambling “faster than heroin.”
After Jimmy and Vivian divorced, in late 1973 or 1974, before the first big score, Vivian would beg her ex-lover and former brother-in-law for money that Jimmy couldn’t or wouldn’t fork over. Christa remembers the family being on food stamps after her dad went to jail. A further indignation: The witness protection program first exiled them to Omaha, Neb. In the winter.
Lee — who was called “F. Lee Chagra” by some of his fans — was murdered in his office and robbed of some $450,000 that might have been intended for a mob boss. Things really fell apart when Jimmy was arrested on trafficking charges.
The case wound up in Wood’s court. Chagra’s defense accused the feds of venue-shopping so that their client was almost sure to get life. Then Wood was assassinated, leading to a massive manhunt, and Chagra was tried and convicted before another judge on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise. (According to The New York Times, Jimmy told brother Joe in a conversation taped by the FBI that he hired Harrelson to do the hit. Those tapes, according to Catherine, were doctored and judged inadmissible.)
Out on bail before sentencing, he went on the lam for five or six months and was on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list. He was arrested without incident in front of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, his second home, where, according to Catherine, he’d gone to seek facial reconstructive surgery. A front-page headline in The El Paso Times virtually screamed the news that the flamboyant kingpin had been nabbed. He got 30 years. He was later tried and acquitted in the assassination but received an additional sentence for obstruction of justice. Joe Chagra also went to prison for his role in the assassination.
The sisters today say that if Lee Chagra had not been killed, Wood would not have been, either. Their dad just didn’t feel safe going to court without his consigliere. Jimmy Chagra, in another conversation recorded in prison and later transcribed, would not go quite as far, although he further muddied the waters.
“I did not worry about a long-term jail sentence until Wood was killed,” he said. “That was why I jumped bond. I knew as soon as that happened, I didn’t have a prayer. … It is hard for me to go back into my cell and think of myself as the man the newspapers have made me out to be. I feel that it has all been terribly twisted. It is like I am reading about a third person.”
Catherine figures she was 10 when her dad went to prison. Her mom and sisters left witness protection and moved to Buda to be near Bastrop, where her father was being held. Vivian died of cancer in July 1986. Catherine moved to Phoenix about three years later to be near the federal lockup where her father did time, visiting every Sunday for 20 years. Kay McCulloch died, and with her death the raw material for the book went to the attic.
It would be lost until the October flood, after which widower Jim McCulloch, after going through belongings he’d moved into a storage unit, would place a call beginning, “Cathy, you’re not going to believe what I found.”
Going through things he’d moved into the unit, McCulloch happened upon a box labeled “Chagra.”
“I knew that Vivian had been working on a book about the Chagra saga,” McCulloch said.
Catherine remembers the prison visits as the best times she ever had with her father. She still has paintings he made while locked up, a hobby he never resumed after getting a medical parole in December 2003. She remembers being elated when he got out, and the heartbreak that he was largely unchanged, as was her love for him: He was always looking for the next million and used a credit card a friend had given him strictly for essentials to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in gambling debts. He could betray a trust as casually as tipping a dealer a chip worth more than the dealer made in a month.
The sisters made mistakes, too, some by failing, in their youth, to realize that a substantial portion of their larger-than-life family history was a cautionary tale, an admonition that for some, life is best lived smaller and more quietly, away from big money and bright lights and celebrities with teeth so white and so impossibly perfect. Catherine is at work on a book called “Dirty Darlings: A Story of Big Shots, Big Hair, Free Falling and a Texas-Sized Return to Grace.” She has the tapes and the transcripts and is determined to get her version of the family story told.
At the end of his life, Jimmy Chagra knew he was dying, and unlike his ex-wife, who’d fought the cancer for herself and her daughters, he gave up quickly. Death came in Mesa, Ariz., on July 25, 2008.
“I knew he was dying,” Catherine Chagra said. “I’d lay next to him and stroke his arm and he’d say, ‘Baby, I think I might go to hell.’ He didn’t apologize for anything; he just said, ‘I think I’m going to hell.’ I said, ‘You just have to ask God to forgive you, Daddy.’ I don’t think he felt bad about the crimes. I think he was sad about what he did to his kids. He thought nobody would love him without money. Hadn’t I already proven that wrong?”