Charles Voyde Harrelson (July 23, 1938 – March 15, 2007) was an American freelance hitman connected with organized crime and was convicted of assassinating a federal judge. He was the father of actor Woody Harrelson.
See also: ADX Florence
Harrelson was sentenced to two life terms for the May 29, 1979, assassination of U.S. District Judge John H. Wood, Jr. Harrelson was convicted of shooting and killing Wood in the parking lot outside of Wood's San Antonio, Texas, townhouse 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.
Harrelson was apprehended with the aid of an anonymous tip and a taped conversation between Jimmy (Jamiel) and his brother, Joe Chagra. He claimed at trial that he did not kill Wood, but merely took credit for it so he could score a huge payout from Chagra.
Harrelson was eventually convicted based largely on Chagra's conversation with his brother who was visiting him in prison. Both Harrelson and Chagra's brother Joe were implicated in the assassination. Harrelson was sentenced to life imprisonment, while Joe 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 current mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman. In a plea bargain, Chagra admitted to his role in the murder of Judge Wood and the attempted murder of a U.S. Attorney.
After his release in 2003, Jimmy Chagra claimed that Harrelson did not murder Judge Wood. While he did not identify the real killer, Chagra indicated that he or she was long deceased. Jamiel and Joe Chagra allegedly misled federal officials by talking about hiring Harrelson to kill Judge Wood when they knew they were being illegally taped during a legal visit in the prison because Harrelson had been blackmailing Joe Chagra with information he did have about the murder of the judge.
This incident is mentioned in Cormac McCarthy's book No Country for Old Men. In the film adaptation of the book Charles Harrelson's son, Woody Harrelson, plays a bounty hunter.
Prior to the Wood murder, Harrelson was tried for the 1968 murder-for-hire killing of Hearne, Texas father of four and grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr., by his business partner and childhood friend since the second grade, Pete Thomas Scamardo, in McAllen, Texas. Scamardo was trafficking heroin across the Mexican border and Harrelson was distributing the drugs. Harrelson lost a shipment of heroin in Kansas City, MO after a traffic stop in June of 1968. For losing the heroin, Scamardo pressured Harrelson into committing the murder for hire of his business partner on July 6, 1968. Harrelson committed the murder for hire on July 6, 1968. On November 19, 1968, Harrelson was arrested in Atlanta, GA in possession of a new car, which had been reported stolen on November 15, 1968.
Two witnesses identified Scamardo and Harrelson together on November 14, 1968 near Mumford, Texas, where Harrelson's rental car was later found submerged in 20 feet of water. On November 19, 1968, Harrelson was arrested in Atlanta, GA in possession of Scamardo's wife's new car, which had been reported stolen on November 15, 1968. The driver of the vehicle used to kidnap and kill Sam Degelia was driven by Jerry Watkins and was the only witness to the murder. Details of the murder, told by Jerry Watkins were corroborated by independent testimony from Harrelson's girlfriend, Sandra Sue Attaway.
Other damaging testimony came from Bob Musser, a Houston Polygraph examiner that testifed that on September 13, 1970, Scamardo and an attorney, Owen Stidham, asked him to falsify a polygraph report for Scamardo, three months before his arrest on December 7, 1968. Musser also testified that Scamardo and Stidham had related facts to him that implicate Scamardo in the Murder of Sam Degelia, Jr.
On March 31, 1970, in spite of the prosecutor seeking the death penalty, a jury of 6 men and 6 women convicted Pete Scamardo as an accomplice to murder and sentenced him to a seven year probated sentence. The Jury reached a guilty verdict in 12 hours and then deliberated an hour and 22 minutes before settling on a probated sentence.
Scamardo and Harrelson's attorney was Percy Foreman, who had been counsel for convicted Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray and lost only 53 of 1500 death-penalty cases with only one finally resulting in execution. At Harrelson's first trial Foreman produced a surprise witness: a nightclub singer who claimed that she had been with Harrelson at the time of the murder. The trial ended in a hung jury: 11 for conviction, one for acquittal.
Harrelson was retried in 1974 in Brownsville, Texas. Texas Ranger Tol Dawson, the lead investigator on the Degelia case, was in the courtroom with a perjury arrest warrant for the nightclub singer, but she had learned of it and fled to Aruba. Without the help of her testimony, Harrelson was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. With time off for good behavior, he was free in five years.
Harrelson mentioned in an early confession to the Wood murder that he shot President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. He then later repeatedly denied his role in the shooting of the President, for which no connection was ever found.
Conspiracy theorists have also labeled him as one of the "Three Tramps" hiding in a box car on the railroad tracks behind Dealey Plaza just after the shooting. Harrelson at various times before his death boasted about his role as one of the tramps, even though in a previous interview he had denied being in Dallas on the day of the assassination.
About the assassination, Harrelson remarked to Dallas TV station KDFW-TV in 1982, "Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy, alone, without any aid from a rogue agency of the US government or at least a portion of that agency? I believe you are very naive if you do."
After attempting to escape from the Atlanta federal penitentiary in 1996, Harrelson was transferred to Supermax prison ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado. He was found unresponsive in his cell on March 15, 2007, having apparently died of natural causes. Woody Harrelson had attempted to have his father's conviction overturned and secure a new trial, to no avail.
Harrelson wrote of life at Supermax
By Mike McPhee
In a chatty, six-page letter to a friend, convicted murderer Charles Harrelson - who died this month - gave a rare inmate's glimpse inside Supermax, the nation's most secure penitentiary, in Florence.
Harrelson, 69, the father of "Cheers" actor Woody Harrelson, died in his cell March 15 of heart failure, the end of a life sentence he served for assassinating a federal judge in Texas in 1979.
In a letter he wrote in June to Bob Tiernan, a Denver attorney and personal friend, Harrelson wrote eloquently about a peaceful, silent existence of reading and writing, of watching David Letterman's monologues and listening to National Public Radio and the BBC.
"I s'pose you might think boredom is a problem for me.
Not true," he wrote. "There are not enough hours in a day for my needs as a matter of fact.
"The silence is wonderful. And feeling left alone is great. ... nobody bothers me.
"Being able to take a shower anytime, stay awake all night if I wish, ... read or write or watch whatever TV channel (some 70 channels are available) or listen to the 10 or so radio stations ... offers something akin to independence."
Harrelson said that "I read a great deal ... and write to my family and Gina (his wife in Houston) every day."
Gina refused to comment for this story, citing how many times he's "been hurt by the media."
Harrelson said his single steel- and-concrete cell measured 10 feet wide by 15 feet deep, with a bed, shower and commode/sink that took up much of the space.
Harrelson said he stayed alone in his cell 23 hours a day and was allowed one hour each day of exercise, alone in a fenced pen, a freedom he rarely used.
His cell had one small window. "We're able to see nothing outside the walls except the sky. Part of the plan here is sensory deprivation. It probably works on some of the residents. I'm pretty sure it hardly bothers me at all."
He added: "Everyone here must find a way to fill the hours of each day. To me it is essential I stay busy. ... every waking moment is filled with something, ... reading, writing or doing chores (I'm a clean freak)."
Harrelson wrote that his life was better than some others'. "I have my family and friends. I still have a relatively intact mind. It could be infinitely worse."