Charles Voyde Harrelson (July 23, 1938 – March 15, 2007)[1] was an American contract killer and organized crime figure who was convicted of assassinating federal judge John H. Wood Jr., the first federal judge to be assassinated in the 20th century. Charles Harrelson was the father of actors Brett and Woody Harrelson.[2]

Charles Harrelson
Charles Harrelson mug shot, May 1960
Born
Charles Voyde Harrelson

(1938-07-23)July 23, 1938
DiedMarch 15, 2007(2007-03-15) (aged 68)
OccupationHitman
Criminal statusDeceased
Spouses
  • Nancy Hillman
Diane Lou Oswald
(m. 1959; div. 1964)
  • Jo Ann
  • Gina Adelle Foster
Children
Parent(s)Voyde and Alma Harrelson
Criminal charge
  • Armed robbery:
    (convicted 1960)
  • Murder:
    (acquitted September 22, 1970)
  • Murder:
    (convicted August 12, 1973)
  • Murder:
    (convicted December 14, 1982)
Penalty1960: 5 years (served months)
1973: 15 years (served 5)
1979: 2 life sentences

Personal life

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Charles Harrelson was born on July 23, 1938, in Lovelady, Texas,[3] the son of Alma Lee (née Sparks; 1907–2002) and Voyde Harrelson (1901–1976).

He was married to Nancy Hillman Harrelson, Diane Lou Oswald, Jo Ann Harrelson, 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 later admitted that he had been involved in dozens of murders beginning in the early 1960s.[4]

Harrelson's son, Woodrow Tracy Harrelson (born July 23, 1961), is actor Woody Harrelson. According to Woody, his father disappeared from the family's home in Houston in 1968, leaving his wife Diane to raise Woody and his two brothers. Woody lost track of his father until 1981, when news broke of Harrelson's arrest for the murder of Judge Wood. During an interview in November 1988, Woody revealed that he visited his father regularly in federal prison, although he still harbored mixed feelings about 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.[5]

In April 2023, actor Matthew McConaughey claimed that he and Woody Harrelson, who have been long-time friends, could potentially be half-brothers, implying that Charles Harrelson could also be his father. According to McConaughey, his mother claimed to have known Woody's father around the time that she bore McConaughey, and the two actors have discussed taking a DNA test to be certain.[6]

Murder of Alan Harry Berg

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Defended by Percy Foreman, Harrelson was tried for the 1968 murder of Alan Harry Berg. On September 22, 1970, he was acquitted by a jury in Angleton, Texas.[7] The murder is chronicled in the memoir Run Brother Run by the victim's brother, David Berg.[8]

Murder of Sam Degelia

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Harrelson was tried for the 1968 murder-for-hire killing of Sam Degelia Jr., a resident of Hearne, Texas. Harrelson was paid $2,000 (the equivalent of $18,000 in 2020) for the murder of Degelia, a grain dealer and father of four who was killed in McAllen, Texas.[9] His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury,[9] although Pete Scamardo was also tried in the case, found guilty of being an accomplice to the murder,[10] and sentenced to seven years probation.[11][12] Harrelson was retried in 1973, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.[13] In 1978, after serving five years, he was released early for good behavior.[13]

Murder of Judge John H. Wood Jr.

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Shortly after Harrelson was paroled in 1978, he and his then-wife, Jo Ann, were implicated in another murder. On May 29, 1979, U.S. district judge John H. Wood Jr. was shot dead in the parking lot outside his San Antonio, Texas, townhouse.[14][15] Harrelson was convicted of killing Judge Wood after being hired by drug dealer Jamiel Chagra of El Paso, Texas. 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 when calls were made to the police saying he was firing a gun at imaginary FBI agents while on drugs. 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 was charged with Judge Wood's murder. 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 as part of a plea bargain to testify for the prosecution but not against his brother. In the absence of Joe's testimony, Jamiel Chagra was acquitted of the murder. Jamiel was represented by the future mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, then a public defender. In a plea bargain, Jamiel admitted to his role in the murder of Judge Wood and to the attempted murder of a U.S. attorney. Harrelson's wife, Jo Ann, was sentenced to consecutive terms totaling 25 years on multiple convictions of conspiracy and perjury related to the assassination.[17]

In 2003, Chagra recanted his previous statements, stating that someone other than Harrelson had shot Judge Wood.[4] Harrelson's son, Woody, then attempted to have his father's conviction overturned in order to secure a new trial, although without success.[18] Chagra died in July 2008 of cancer.[19]

Allegations of involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy

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In September 1980, Harrelson surrendered to police after a six-hour standoff in which he was reportedly high on cocaine.[20][21] During the standoff, he threatened suicide and stated that he had killed both Judge Wood and President John F. Kennedy.[20][22] In a television interview after his arrest, Harrelson said: "At the same time I said I had killed the judge, I said I had killed Kennedy, which might give you an idea to the state of my mind at the time." He said that the statements made during the standoff were "an effort to elongate my life."[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. 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' 1989 book Crossfire, Harrelson is believed to be the youngest and tallest of the "three tramps" by many conspiracy theorists.[21] Marrs stated that Harrelson was involved "with criminals connected to intelligence agencies and the military" and suggested that 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.[22] Lois Gibson, a well-known forensic artist, matched photographs of Harrelson to the photographs of the youngest-looking of the three "tramps".[25][26]

In 1982, Harrelson told Dallas TV station KDFW-TV, "Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy, alone, without any aid from a rogue agency of the U.S. government or at least a portion of that agency? I believe you are very naive if you do."[27]

Escape attempt

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ADX Florence, 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.[28] Harrelson was subsequently transferred to supermax prison ADX Florence in 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."[29]

Death

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On March 15, 2007, Harrelson was found dead in his cell, having died at the age of 68 from a heart attack.[2][30]

Media

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In Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, set in 1980, the sheriff states "Here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge", referencing the murder of Judge John H. Wood Jr. by Harrelson. His son Woody Harrelson starred in the 2007 film adaptation of the novel, which premiered two months after the elder Harrelson's death.

A 10-episode podcast titled Son of a Hitman[31] was released on May 5, 2020, by Spotify Studios and produced by High Five Content. It is produced and hosted by journalist Jason Cavanagh and investigates the legitimacy of the three murder charges for which Charles Harrelson was tried as well as the possibility that he may have been involved with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.[32]

References

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  1. ^ Robbins, Maro; Guillermo Contreras (March 21, 2007). "Judge Wood's assassin dies of heart attack". San Antonio Express-News. Archived from the original on March 26, 2007. Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  2. ^ a b "Woody Harrelson's Father Dies in Prison". CBS News. March 21, 2007. Archived from the original on October 16, 2009. Retrieved July 16, 2008.
  3. ^ "Woody Harrelson's assassin father dies in prison". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 2017-02-26.
  4. ^ a b Harlow, John (April 8, 2007). "Secrets of Woody's hitman father". The Times. London. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008. Retrieved July 22, 2010.
  5. ^ Hutchings, David (November 14, 1988). "Woody Harrelson, Cheers' Cheery Bartender, Feels a Bit Mixed About Fame and a Strange Family Twist". People. Archived from the original on January 10, 2011. Retrieved July 22, 2010.
  6. ^ "Matthew McConaughey says True Detective co-star Woody Harrelson could be his half-brother". Sky News. Retrieved 2023-04-14.
  7. ^ "Harrelson Takes Stand". The Victoria Advocate. Victoria, Texas. AP. November 20, 1982. p. 8A. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  8. ^ Kelley, Christopher (June 8, 2013). "Decades Later, Revisiting a Death in the Family". The New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  9. ^ a b "Woody Harrelson's father famous in the Valley before achieving national notoriety". The Monitor (Texas). March 27, 2007. Archived from the original on April 22, 2017. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  10. ^ "Scamardo Given Probated Term". The Abilene Reporter-News. Page 8-A. April 1, 1970.
  11. ^ "Judge declares mistrial in Edinburg murder case". Brownwood Bulletin. Page 8-B. December 16, 1971.
  12. ^ "Harrelson trial will open Monday". The Port Arthur News. Page 14. July 26, 1970.
  13. ^ a b "Woody Harrelson: my father, the contract killer". The Guardian. February 17, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  14. ^ "Judge Wood fatally shot in San Antonio". The Odessa American. Associated Press. 29 May 1979. pp. 1A–2A. Retrieved 3 June 2023 – via Newspapers.com. 
  15. ^ John Sutton; Larry Jolidon (30 May 1979). "Federal judge in San Antonio shot to death". Austin American-Statesman. pp. A1, A6. Retrieved 3 June 2023 – via Newspapers.com. 
  16. ^ "Texas Sniper". Time. October 25, 1982. Archived from the original on March 30, 2008. 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. ^ Carr, David (November 25, 2007). "Loves the Beach, the Planet and Movies". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2015-06-05. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  19. ^ James C. McKinley Jr., "Jamiel A. Chagra, 63, Drug Kingpin, Dies", The New York Times, July 29, 2008
  20. ^ a b Cartwright, Gary (September 1982). Curtis, Gregory (ed.). "The Man Who Killed Judge Wood". Texas Monthly. 10 (9). Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly, Inc.: 250. ISSN 0148-7736. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
  21. ^ a b Marrs, Jim (1989). Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-88184-648-5.
  22. ^ a b Marrs 1989, p. 335.
  23. ^ Cochran, Mike (November 7, 1983). "Warren Commission Critics Push Cover-Up Theory". The Press-Courier. Oxnard, California. p. 16. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
  24. ^ Jorden, Jay (November 22, 1982). "Kennedy controversy still goes on". The Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. AP. p. 7. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
  25. ^ "Forensic Art". Archived from the original on 2015-11-24. Retrieved 2015-11-24.
  26. ^ Bottom Line: How Crazy Is It?; by Newsweek Staff; 1;2/23/91
  27. ^ [1] Interview with Charles Harrelson. Dallas Channel 4, 1982.
  28. ^ "Guard Foils Escape Attempt by Woody Harrelson's Dad". Deseret News. July 6, 1995. Retrieved April 18, 2011.
  29. ^ McPhee, Mike (March 24, 2007). "Harrelson wrote of life at Supermax". Denver Post. Retrieved July 22, 2010.
  30. ^ "Woody Harrelson's dad dies in prison". Associated Press. 2007-03-21. Archived from the original on March 24, 2007. Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  31. ^ "Son of a Hitman Podcast". Spotify.com. Spotify Studios. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  32. ^ Tron, Gina (May 6, 2020). "New Podcast 'Son Of A Hitman' Investigates Woody Harrelson's Hitman Dad, Including His JFK Assassination Claim". Oxygen. Retrieved May 6, 2020.