Charles Harrelson
Charles Harrelson mug shot, May 1960
Charles Harrelson mug shot, May 1960
Born Charles Voyde Harrelson
(1938-07-23)July 23, 1938
Huntsville, Texas, U.S.
Died March 15, 2007(2007-03-15) (aged 68)
Florence ADMAX USP, Fremont County, Colorado, USA
Charge(s) Murder (August 12, 1973) and Murder (May 29, 1979)
Penalty 15 years, 2 life sentences
Conviction status Deceased
Occupation Hitman
Spouse Nancy Hillman Harrelson, Jo Ann Harrelson, Diane Lou Oswald and Gina Adelle Foster
Parents Voyde Harrelson and Alma Harrelson
Children Actor Woody Harrelson, Motorcyclist Brett Harrelson, Businessman Jordan Harrelson

Charles Voyde Harrelson (July 23, 1938 – March 15, 2007)[1] was an American organized crime figure who was convicted of assassinating federal judge John H. Wood, Jr., the first federal judge killed in the 20th century. He was the estranged father of actor Woody Harrelson.[2]

Personal life[edit | edit source]

Charles Harrelson was born on July 23, 1938 in Huntsville, Texas, the son of Alma Lee (née Sparks) and Voyde Harrelson. He was married to Nancy Hillman Harrelson, Jo Ann Harrelson, Diane Lou Oswald and Gina Adelle Foster. Harrelson worked as an encyclopedia salesman in California and as a professional gambler. In 1960 he was convicted of armed robbery.

Harrelson's son, Woody Harrelson, became a well-known television and film actor. According to Woody Harrelson, Charles disappeared from the family's home in Houston in 1968, leaving his wife to raise Woody and his two brothers. Woody lost track of his father until 1981, when news broke of Charles' arrest for the murder of Judge Wood. In an interview, Woody Harrelson revealed that he visited his father regularly in federal prison, though he still harbored mixed feelings for him, saying "my father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I've ever known. Still, I'm just now gauging whether he merits my loyalty or friendship. I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father."[3]

Murder of Sam Degelia[edit | edit source]

Prior to the Wood murder, Harrelson was tried for the 1968 murder-for-hire killing of Hearne, Texas resident Sam Degelia, Jr., a grain dealer and father of four who was killed in McAllen, Texas.[4] Pete Scamardo was also tried in the case and found guilty of being an accomplice to the murder.[5] Harrelson's trial ended in a mistrial and Scamardo was sentenced to seven years probation.[6][7]

Harrelson was tried again in 1973; this time he was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.[8][9][10] In the new trial, Sandra Sue Attaway, Harrelson's girlfriend, testified that the motive for the murder was compensation for losing Scamardo's heroin in Kansas City the month before the murder.[11][12] Harrelson was granted parole in 1976 and was released from prison in September 1978.[13][14]

Murder of Judge John H. Wood, Jr.[edit | edit source]

Shortly after Harrelson was paroled in 1978, he was implicated in another murder. On May 29, 1979, U.S. District Judge John H. Wood, Jr. was assassinated in the parking lot outside his San Antonio, Texas, townhouse.[15] Harrelson was convicted of killing Judge Wood after being hired by drug dealer Jamiel Chagra of El Paso. Wood — nicknamed "Maximum John" because of his reputation for handing down long sentences for drug offenses — was originally scheduled to have Chagra appear before him on the day of his murder, but the trial had been delayed.[16]

Harrelson was apprehended with the aid of an anonymous tip and a tape recording of a conversation that occurred during a visit from Joe Chagra to his brother Jamiel Chagra in prison. Harrelson claimed at trial that he did not kill Judge Wood, but merely took credit for it so he could claim a large payment from Chagra.

Harrelson was sentenced to two life terms based largely on Chagra's conversation with his brother from prison. Both Harrelson and Joe Chagra were implicated in the assassination, and Chagra received a ten-year sentence. Jamiel Chagra was acquitted of the murder when his brother Joe refused to testify against him. Chagra was represented by former mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, then a public defender. In a plea bargain, Jamiel Chagra admitted to his role in the murder of Judge Wood and to the attempted murder of a U.S. Attorney. Jo Ann Harrelson was also convicted of conspiracy and perjury.[17]

In 2003, Chagra recanted his previous statements, and stated that someone other than Harrelson had in fact shot Judge Wood.[18][dead link] His son, the actor Woody Harrelson, then attempted to have his father's conviction overturned in order to secure a new trial, though without success.[19] Chagra died in July 2008 of cancer.[20]

Allegations of involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy[edit | edit source]

In September 1982, Harrelson surrendered to police after a six-hour standoff in which he was reportedly "high on cocaine".[21][22] During the standoff, he threatened suicide and "confessed" to killing Judge Wood and President John F. Kennedy.[21][23] Joseph Chagra later testified during Harrelson's trial that Harrelson claimed to have shot Kennedy and drew maps to show where he was hiding during the assassination.[24] Chagra said that he did not believe Harrelson's claim, and the AP reported that the FBI "apparently discounted any involvement by Harrelson in the Kennedy assassination."[24] According to Jim Marrs in 1989's Crossfire, Harrelson is believed to be the youngest and tallest of the "three tramps" by many assassination researchers.[22] Marrs stated that Harrelson was involved "with criminals connected to intelligence agencies and the military"[23] and suggested the he was connected to Jack Ruby through Russell Douglas Matthews, a third party with links to organized crime who was known to both Harrelson and Ruby.[23]

Escape attempt and death[edit | edit source]

File:ADX Florence.jpg

USP Florence ADMAX, where Harrelson was transferred after his escape attempt

On July 4, 1995, Harrelson and two other inmates, Gary Settle and Michael Rivers, attempted to escape from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary using a makeshift rope. A warning shot was fired at them from the prison's tower, and the trio surrendered.[25] Harrelson was subsequently transferred to Supermax prison ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado. In a letter to a friend, Harrelson wrote that he enjoyed his life inside the maximum security facility, writing that "there are not enough hours in a day for my needs as a matter of fact... The silence is wonderful."[26]

He was found unresponsive in his cell on March 15, 2007, having died of severe coronary artery disease.[2][27] His Federal Bureau of Prisons Register number was 02582-016.[28]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Robbins, Maro; Guillermo Contreras (March 21, 2007). "Judge Wood's assassin dies of heart attack". San Antonio Express-News. Retrieved March 21, 2007. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Woody Harrelson's Father Dies in Prison". CBC News. March 21, 2007. Retrieved July 16, 2008. 
  3. Hutchings, David (November 14, 1988). "Woody Harrelson, Cheers' Cheery Bartender, Feels a Bit Mixed About Fame and a Strange Family Twist". People Magazine.,,20100474,00.html. Retrieved July 22, 2010. 
  4. "Harrelson Trial Draws To A Close". The Odessa American. Page 4-A. December 7, 1971.
  5. "Scamardo Given Probated Term". The Abilene Reporter-News. Page 8-A. April 1, 1970.
  6. "Judge declares mistrial in Edinburg murder case". Brownwood Bulletin. Page 8-B. December 16, 1971.
  7. "Harrelson trial will open Monday". The Port Arthur News. Page 14. July 26, 1970.
  8. "Harrelson Guilty; Given 15-Year Prison Sentence". The Hearne Democrat. Page 1. August 16, 1973.
  9. "Man Loses Third Trial for Murder". The Stars and Stripes. Page 7. August 13, 1973.
  10. "Man Sentenced In Third Murder Trial". Nevada State Journal. Page 35. August 12, 1973.
  11. "Texas Dept. of Public Safety pages 37-41 Deposition of Sandra Sue Attaway". Texas State Archives. Retrieved July 6, 1968. 
  12. "New Motive told in Degelia Slaying"; The Dallas Morning News. August 1, 1973.
  13. Cartwright, Gary. "Dirty Dealing: Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border & the Assassination of a Federal Judge : an American Parable". El Paso, Tex: Cinco Puntos Press, 1998. p. 226.
  14. "Charles Harrelson Is Eligible For Parole". The Hearne Democrat. Page 1. September 2, 1976.
  15. "Charles Harrelson Trial: 1982-83". Retrieved July 22, 2010. 
  16. "Texas Sniper". Time Magazine. October 25, 1982.,9171,953589-1,00.html. Retrieved July 22, 2010. 
  17. UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jo Ann HARRELSON, Defendant-Appellant. 754 F.2d 1182, No. 83-1204. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, February 15, 1985
  18. Harlow, John (April 8, 2007). "Secrets of Woody’s hitman father". The Times (London). Retrieved July 22, 2010. 
  19. Carr, David (2007-11-25). "Loves the Beach, the Planet and Movies". The New York Times. Retrieved November 25, 2007. 
  20. James C. McKinley Jr., "Jamiel A. Chagra, 63, Drug Kingpin, Dies", New York Times, July 29, 2008
  21. 21.0 21.1 Cartwright, Gary (September 1982). Curtis, Gregory. ed. "The Man Who Killed Judge Wood". Texas Monthly (Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly, Inc.) 10 (9): 250. ISSN 0148-7736. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Marrs, Jim (1989). Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-88184-648-5. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Marrs 1989, p. 335.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Jorden, Jay (November 22, 1982). "Kennedy controversy still goes on". The Free Lance-Star. AP (Fredericksburg, Virginia): p. 7. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  25. "Guard Foils Escape Attempt by Woody Harrelson's Dad". Deseret News. July 6, 1995. Retrieved April 18, 2011. 
  26. McPhee, Mike (March 24, 2007). "Harrelson wrote of life at Supermax". Denver Post. Retrieved July 22, 2010. 
  27. "Woody Harrelson's dad dies in prison". Associated Press. 2007-03-21. Archived from the original on March 24, 2007. Retrieved March 21, 2007. 
  28. "Charles Voyde Harrelson." Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved on January 7, 2010.

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