For a time, Johnny Ray Spinelli was a one-man crime wave.
After jumping bail in a Houston burglary case, he’d surfaced in the San Francisco Bay Area, where, according to press accounts, he became known briefly as the “Fotomat bandit.” He approached saleswomen at the drive-ups, robbed them and, on six occasions, raped them.
He pleaded guilty to eight felonies and was sent to the Chino men’s prison but escaped. Though officials at the time said they were unsure how, a spokesman noted, “There is an electrically operated gate in the yard, and Spinelli is an electrician.” Before disappearing, he broke into a municipal storage facility, making off with a police captain’s uniform and two shotguns.
Spinelli re-emerged in Texas a few weeks later when a Houston woman reported being attacked by a man matching his description driving a yellow Volkswagen. After a patrol officer pulled him over, Spinelli shot at him and took his cruiser.
During the pursuit, Spinelli commandeered a Volvo occupied by a 4-year-old girl and her baby sitter. He was finally captured after a 90-minute chase that included a helicopter and was sentenced to life in prison — twice.
He was released after 21 years. Now a 74-year-old safety consultant, Spinelli late last year found himself in an Austin courtroom asking Texas regulators to overlook his lurid past and not revoke his state-issued electrician’s license.
Defendants in licensing cases typically present an employer or co-worker to vouch for their dependability and character. At his October hearing, Spinelli instead asked if he could call an unlikely friend whose path he’d crossed decades earlier, when the two men represented opposite sides of the criminal justice system — and when, for a moment, millions of people were eager to hear every word Johnny Spinelli said.
After several rings, a voice came over the court’s speakerphone. “I’m a judge,” it said. “Former federal judge.”
“I’m very fond of John,” continued William Sessions, who also served as director of the FBI for six years under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The former prison lifer, Sessions said, “is an astounding man.”
‘I created the monster’
Today, Sessions, who served four years as a U.S. attorney and 13 as a federal judge in Texas’ Western District before his FBI appointment, lives in a San Antonio retirement facility. Though 87 years old, the son of a minister still carries himself rigidly upright and speaks with the precision of a person whose career included both presiding over one of the nation’s busiest courtrooms — he required suit coats and banned chewing gum — and testifying in front of Congress.
The United States, he said, owes Spinelli a debt of gratitude that he personally has tried to repay with half a lifetime of friendship. “What John did is heroic,” he said in an interview. “I consider him a friend. Absolutely.”
When Spinelli got married, Sessions stood as best man at his wedding.
The judge’s family has supported Spinelli too. “Dad appreciates people who put things on the line,” said Mark Sessions, a San Antonio attorney. “And that’s what John did.”
Another of the judge’s sons, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, petitioned Gov. Rick Perry to consider granting Spinelli clemency.
Spinelli lives in an unfinished house on 5 acres about 50 miles northwest of Austin. After more than two decades in prison, he’s worried about how he will pay his bills in his old age. He collects $1,600 a month in Social Security. He walks with a limp from a bad knee.
He’s a lifetime sex offender registrant. His parole supervision is scheduled to end in 2050, at which point he would be 106 years old.
“Nobody owes me anything,” he said. “I created the monster. I’m guilty of everything I’ve ever been convicted of.”
It’s a long list.
“I had a chaotic childhood,” he explained in a recent court hearing. In St. Louis, where he was raised, his mother suffered a breakdown and struggled with alcohol. “It was a get-by,” he said. “There was no right or wrong. It was just do the best you could. If the money wasn’t there for the rent, it was figure out how to get it.”
He stole drainpipes for the metal, graduated to cars and then burglaries. He was sent to reform school in Missouri — “That was actually a comfortable place; what was right Monday was right Tuesday,” he recalled. When that didn’t take, he landed in juvenile lockup. He escaped, was sent back, aged out when he turned 19.
Spinelli’s first adult conviction was in 1962, for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder, records show. He was locked up, released, relocated, did more armed robberies in Houston and then California, where he went on his rape and robbery spree.
“I was lucky I wasn’t killed and even luckier I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “What I did was horrendous.” After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to concurrent terms of life in prison.
After a couple of years, Spinelli appealed the sentence, contending that he was misinformed of its conditions. For a hearing in the case, he was moved from Huntsville to an isolated wing of the Harris County Jail. He had the unit to himself until deputies brought in a prisoner to occupy the other cell on the corridor.
“He was high on cocaine,” Spinelli recalled. “And I could hear him muttering to himself about how he’d killed a federal judge. Back then they didn’t allow any newspapers in the jail. So I didn’t know what was going on.”
He was about the only one in Texas who didn’t.
Crime of the Century
On the morning of May 29, 1979, U.S. District Judge John Wood was outside his San Antonio town house preparing to drive to work when a single bullet from a high-powered rifle struck him in the small of his back and traveled upward, stopping in his chest. He died on the way to the hospital.
It would be difficult to overstate the sense of chaos and fear that Wood’s assassination created across the country’s justice system. “It was just … shock,” recalled Sam Millsap, a young San Antonio civil attorney whose involvement in the case inspired him to become a prosecutor. “And it lasted for years.”
Wood’s killing was quickly dubbed the Crime of the Century — “an assault on our very system of justice,” President Jimmy Carter declared. There was “a lot of pressure on the federal justice system” to solve the crime speedily, recalled John Clark, who served as U.S. attorney for the Western District in San Antonio.
The problem wasn’t finding people who might have wanted the judge dead, but the opposite. Wood was an avid supporter of the newly launched War on Drugs, earning the nickname Maximum John for his severe sentencing. If measured by vengeful convicts and anxious defendants, plenty of people had motive to pull the trigger.
The FBI’s investigation, code-named “Woodmur,” became the country’s second-largest criminal investigation, behind the Kennedy assassination. Yet despite dozens of agents and tens of thousands of hours of work, the bureau’s efforts foundered.
By 1981, the gun used in Wood’s killing still hadn’t been found. Even with more than $200,000 in reward money — half raised privately among Texas lawyers and business owners — agents hadn’t made any arrests in the case.
That’s not to say the feds didn’t have their suspicions. Investigators had cast an eye on Charles Harrelson early on. Long before his son, Woody, would become a famous actor, Charles was well-known among police.
The East Texas native was handsome and charming, a skilled card player and irresistible to many women. “He had the most unusual eyes I’ve ever seen,” Oscar Goodman, an attorney known for representing underworld figures before he became mayor of Las Vegas, recalled in an interview. “They were robin’s egg blue, and you couldn’t see the pupil.”
Harrelson also had a violent streak. He had already served five years for one murder-for-hire, in McAllen, and been charged but acquitted in another. “It’s as though his skin is on too tight,” one of his lawyers said.
He was called to testify in front of the Wood grand jury early on. But without enough evidence to charge him with the judge’s killing, Harrelson had been released.
He couldn’t stay out of trouble for long, though, and in February 1981 he was arrested on drug and gun charges in Houston. He bolted while out on bail, but seven months later he was taken into custody on Interstate 10 outside the West Texas town of Van Horn in his girlfriend’s Corvette, high on cocaine.
Police returned him to Houston, where he was placed in the jail cell at the end of a hallway next to Spinelli.
‘Told them flat out — I’m not a rat’
“We’d play chess,” Spinelli recalled. “He’d reach out and make a move, and I’d reach out and make a move. The water heater was on my side, so I’d have to hand him his hot water for drinks.
“We couldn’t see each other, except when he had visitors. He’d come out and stand in front of my door and talk. Other times, he’d talk to himself and rehearse speaking, it sounded like. He was ranting about taking out a judge.”
Spinelli’s own record of behavior might have been appalling, yet “he’s got a very rule-minded view of things,” explained Martha Wood, a former law school professor and Chicago judge who came to know Spinelli.
“So I wrote the FBI a letter,” Spinelli said. “I told them flat out — I’m not a rat. Because in my mind, I wasn’t. I wasn’t trying to get out of prison. I wasn’t trying to get reward money. It was just the right thing to do.”
A couple of weeks later an FBI agent and prosecutor paid him a visit. “They asked if me if I’d go back to the county jail and record Charles Harrelson.”
Agents gave him a small tape recorder hidden inside a sheaf of papers that looked like a legal transcript — “so the guards wouldn’t discover it by mistake.” He could only turn the machine on and off, a precaution against manipulating the recording.
For the next 57 days, whenever Harrelson started talking Spinelli pushed the ‘on’ button.
Snitches don’t live long
Three years after Wood’s assassination, Spinelli’s secret tapes were revealed.
Federal investigators had finally gathered enough evidence to indict Charles Harrelson for Wood’s murder. Prosecutors alleged he’d been hired by an El Paso drug trafficker named Jimmy Chagra, who, facing a life sentence in a drug case about to be heard by Wood, paid $250,000 for the hit.
Through late 1982 and early 1983, the two cases unfolded in San Antonio’s newly named John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse and in Jacksonville, Fla. Presiding over both trials was U.S. District Chief Judge William Sessions.
His presence on the bench was controversial. The judge had a web of connections to many of the saga’s primary players. He’d worked closely with Wood, eulogizing the slain man at his funeral. He’d presided over the 1979 trial that had put Chagra in prison for drug trafficking. Defense attorneys protested but were overruled.
Spinelli took the stand for three days in November 1982, testifying to what he’d overheard and taped Harrelson saying in the next-door jail cell. Press descriptions from the time described his cross-examination as intense.
Accounts of his contribution to the government’s case vary. Now retired but still living in San Antonio, lead federal prosecutor Raymond Jahn said Spinelli’s testimony “was one of several different aspects of the primary case against Harrelson. He did what he said he was going to do.”
From his perch overseeing the proceedings, however, Sessions recalled Spinelli’s role as pivotal to bringing the killer of his associate to justice. After a five-week trial, Harrelson was convicted and sentenced to two life terms. (He died in prison in 2007. Chagra was acquitted and died in an Arizona hospice in 2008.)
“You’re looking at the man who was responsible for the conviction of the assassin of John Wood,” Sessions said. “And he risked his life. And I knew he risked his life because he was a snitch. Snitches don’t live long in prison. They die in prison.”
“I don’t regret what I did,” Spinelli said.
“But if I’d had any idea of how bad it was going to be, maybe I’d never have done it.”
Spinelli actually had negotiated one consideration in exchange for his help: a move out of Texas prisons, where several of Harrelson’s relatives had worked, to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, according to an April 9, 1981 “memorandum of understanding” included in a 2011 court case.
Because Spinelli hadn’t been formally accepted into the witness protection program, however, administrators were unsure how to protect him from other prisoners who might have been inclined to punish a snitch.
“We recognize there have been some known threats against Spinelli,” a prison spokesman acknowledged to a Lompoc, Calif., newspaper in 1984.
“So the first thing the wardens would do is put me in solitary,” Spinelli said. “They called it ‘protective custody.’ ” After a few months, he’d be shipped to another facility, where the scenario would play out again.
“I called it ‘diesel therapy,’ ” Spinelli said, a reference to his constant movement. According to his records, over the next six years he was held at 33 prisons in 12 states.
Without an opportunity to work and earn good time credit, Spinelli’s parole eligibility date receded. He was assigned so many different names “I was beginning to wonder who I was.” (His Texas sex offender registration lists a dozen aliases and four birth dates.)
After a suicide attempt, Spinelli sued the Bureau of Prisons over his confinement conditions. The case landed in a federal court in Chicago, where U.S. District Judge Prentice Marshall asked Martha Mills to investigate Spinelli’s claims, which she found to be largely true.
Spinelli’s story “could have been the fodder for a great novel of tragedy and comedy about existence in the federal correctional system as a ‘protected’ prisoner,” wrote Mills, who later became a judge. In 1986, Spinelli won an agreement from the government to protect him, but also to move him into the general population “with all the benefits of work and education and communication with other people,” according to a copy of the deal.
‘Nothing regular about this’
Sessions continued working as a federal judge until 1987, when Ronald Reagan plucked him from Texas to lead the FBI. Spinelli sent him a letter of congratulations from prison.
After the Wood trials, the two had stayed in contact. Outside the public eye, Sessions had worked early on to help the informant he felt had provided crucial help for the government in his highest-profile case, calling Spinelli’s actions “courageous” in a 1984 letter to federal prosecutors.
In an interview, Mills said Judge Sessions also consulted with her in her effort to win better prison conditions for Spinelli. “I said I’d help in any way I could,” Sessions confirmed.
After 20 years in prison, Spinelli came up for parole in 1997. In a letter of support, Sessions noted that he’d “been associated with the trials of hundreds of federal prisoners. Certainly this is the first time I have asked that a person be considered favorably for parole.”
His advocacy went well beyond that, though.
Victor Rodriguez was the chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles when he received a call from the former FBI director, who wanted to meet with him ahead of Spinelli’s hearing. On the day of the meeting, not only did Sessions show up at Rodriguez’s San Antonio office, but three other judges did as well. Rodriguez said he doesn’t remember all their names, but one was Prentice Marshall.
“There was nothing regular about this,” recalled Rodriguez, now the McAllen police chief.
All lobbied him for Spinelli’s release. “Did the visit influence me? Absolutely, no question,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not every day a whole host of federal judges come to you.”
Spinelli won parole several months later. “We in Texas did what we could to assist the judges in this matter,” Rodriguez said.
A plea for clemency
Since his release, Spinelli and Sessions have remained friends, meeting for lunch in the Hill Country, talking on the phone or visiting at Sessions’ apartment. He’s stayed at the judge’s home overnight.
In November 2001, Spinelli called Sessions to invite him to his wedding. Sessions told him to come to his office instead. The judge served as a witness while a justice of the peace performed the ceremony.
“We got flowers and faux champagne,” recalled Mark Sessions, who attended.
In 2011, Spinelli was taken into custody for a minor sex offender registration violation in Rockwall, spending ten months in prison. Sessions provided another letter of support. He’s vouched for the former prisoner to potential employers.
In 2011, the judge contacted Perry on behalf of his friend.
“John Spinelli does not believe that he is entitled to absolution,” Sessions wrote. “He does seek some type of acknowledgement, through the clemency process, that he is truly a changed man.”
Congressman Pete Session’s letter of support arrived two weeks later. Perry never acted on the pleas.
The latest round of references came early last year, after Spinelli was arrested for stealing several hundred dollars’ worth of materials from a hardware store in Leander. Because of his criminal record, he spent 80 days in the Williamson County Jail.
“I was flat broke,” he said. “It was a dumb-ass stupid mistake.”
It was soon after his release from jail that Spinelli learned the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation considered the theft conviction — combined with his earlier misdeeds — reason to revoke his electrician’s license. “They’re bringing all this stuff up like it’s a new revelation,” he said, noting that the agency granted him a license in 2004, fully aware of his past.
Despite Sessions’ testimonial and Spinelli’s plea that his long work history without incident, educational achievements — he has a master’s degree — and tape-recording service for the U.S. government outweighed his crimes, the administrative judge was unswayed.
“Mr. Spinelli’s history as a whole contains many contradictions: he has shown integrity, hard work, and truthfulness as well as violent and anti-social behavior, mistakes in judgment, and untrustworthiness,” Judge Stephanie Frazee wrote in December. “On balance, the evidence does not show, at this time, that Mr. Spinelli is fit to perform the duties and discharge the responsibilities of an electrician.”
The state licensing board, which has the final say in the matter, is scheduled to hear his case later this month. Spinelli said his expectations are low.
“I wouldn’t believe me if I heard my story,” he said.