On the night before he was murdered, Lee Chagra returned home to El Paso flushed with the euphoria a gambler feels when he believes his luck is changing. Lee had been in Tucson trying a case for most of the past two weeks, and when the Friday night plane began its approach over the Upper Valley and through the Pass, he caught a glimpse of the lighted Christmas star on the slopes of Mount Franklin. The verdict in the Tucson trial had been sublime: in a highly publicized, multicount bank fraud indictment, Lee had walked his man on every count. It was his most important victory in months—and his most profitable. It was three days before Christmas, 1978.
All things considered, 1978 has probably been the worst year of Lee Chagra’s life. Worse than 1973, the year the federal government indicted him on a trumped-up marijuana trafficking charge in Nashville and nearly destroyed his law practice. Worse even then the chain reaction of disasters in 1977: the crash of one of his brother Jimmy’s drug smuggling planes in Colombia, Jimmy’s botched foray to rescue the pilot, Lee’s frantic scramble to rescue Jimmy, his running courtroom battle with federal prosecutor James Kerr and Judge John Wood. This year, 1978, had been a year of galloping paranoia. Lee had always lived his life on the edge of respectability, goading the El Paso establishment by defending hardened criminals, consorting with known drug smugglers, and cultivating his image as the Black Striker. Through it all, he had somehow clung to the central fact in his life: Lee Chagra was a topflight criminal attorney.
But now the years of fast living were catching up. His practice had foundered, he had run up huge gambling debts, his life was peopled with shysters and thugs; and if the truth was known, Lee himself had become little more than a highly paid functionary in Jimmy’s fluctuating gang of smugglers.
What’s more, Kerr and Wood and the entire apparatus of the federal government were breathing down his neck. They were making a career, or at least a crusade, of trying to prove that Lee Chagra, master criminal lawyer, was in fact master criminal.
For months Lee had been unable to shake the premonition that something wild and uncontrollable had broken loose. The madness seemed to peak in November, when two men in a van sprayed Kerr’s car with buckshot and .30-caliber bullets. Federal agents turned up at Lee’s office the next morning to confiscate his gun collection and question him about the unsuccessful assassination attempt.
On the plane from Tucson, Lee must have reflected on the paradox of his life. He sat next to a lawyer who worked for one of El Paso’s established firms in one of the high-rise glass towers that dominate the downtown district. The lawyer mentioned that he sometimes looked down at the office complex that Lee was remodeling and experienced pangs of envy. “You’ve got everything I always dreamed of having,” the lawyer said. Lee laughed with pride. The other lawyer couldn’t appreciate the irony, but until that moment, Lee had always envied him. The new office was a show of faith, or at least tenacity, and it made Lee feel good to know that someone else appreciated it. His staff had completed the move while he was in Tucson, and in the morning he would officially take possession: it would be his first day there and, as fate decreed, his last.
Jo Annie, Lee’s boyhood sweetheart and the wife who had seen him through law school and nineteen years of an emotionally charged marriage, met him at the airport. Two of their five children were with her. They had a surprise for Lee—a new Lincoln limousine with a portable bar, a TV, a stereo, and even a secret compartment to conceal his guns and playing cards. The perfect vehicle for the imperfect time. The family had a late dinner. Lee couldn’t stop talking about Tucson. It had been months since anyone had seen him so animated.
Sometime in the middle of the night, after everyone else was asleep, Lee changed clothes and drove to his new office. He let himself in with a specially made key and walked upstairs. He unlocked the door to his private bath. The money was in the canvas tennis bag under the sink. There was a steel floor safe sunk into five feet of concrete, but like the other safes, it hadn’t yet been completely installed. Lee counted out $75,000, slipped it into his coat pocket, and headed for his clandestine appointment.
As he pulled off the exit ramp above a truck stop on IH 10, Lee could see the Indian’s car parked in the shadows behind some eighteen-wheelers that idled in the predawn chill. The Indian brushed a strand of limp hair over his bald spot as he walked toward Lee’s car. The Indian wasn’t a man most folks would care to meet in the dark—there was a .22 pistol under his stained leather jacket, and his face looked like forty miles of bad highway. But Lee trusted him. The Indian worked as a collector for several Las Vegas casinos. Lee joked as he gave the Indian the $75,000, and the Indian mumbled and studied his boots. That was it, the last of the half-million the Black Striker had blown in Vegas the year before.