In death as in life, El Paso crime family scion Joe Chagra is getting a bad rap.
WHEN FIFTY-YEAR-OLD JOE CHAGRA flipped his Toyota Landcruiser on Interstate 10 west of El Paso in December, killing himself and two passengers, it was a sad final chapter in the life of a man best known as one of the conspirators in the 1979 murder of San Antonio federal judge John Wood. But there’s a postscript: I feel certain that the youngest of three brothers in El Paso’s infamous Chagra crime family knew nothing about Wood’s murder until months after the fact. I know, of course, that on the witness stand Joe testified that he counseled his brother Jimmy to order the hit, and I know he did time in federal prison. But I believe Joe made up those stories as part of a deal with the prosecution, and so do many others close to the case. I got to know Joe well in the two years I was writing my book on the Wood assassination, Dirty Dealing, and I watched the sordid story unfold through his eyes. Over time, we became friends. I’ve published three articles in this magazine about Wood and the Chagras, but I’ve never written all I know—until now.
Joe was a genuinely nice guy who was congenitally unable to say no. As a result, people used him. Lee, his eldest brother, brought Joe into his law partnership largely to enhance his own self-esteem as patrón of the Chagra family. Lee considered Joe his property and took what he wanted, including Joe’s first serious girlfriend. Middle brother Jimmy, the proverbial bad penny, used Joe as a wedge against Lee in a sibling rivalry that consumed both brothers and eventually the entire family, and as the unwitting liaison in his drug operations. On Christmas Eve 1978, two thugs robbed Lee’s law office and killed him. The $450,000 they took from the office safe was money Jimmy owed to mob boss Joe Bonanno, Sr., for a busted drug deal. Lee and Jimmy were gangsters, whereas Joe was just a kid who liked to snort coke and talk tough.
Joe had no idea he was being pulled into the Wood conspiracy—or even that there was a conspiracy—when Charles Harrelson hired him to represent him on an old gun charge in Harris County in February 1980. The gun rap seemed routine until Harrelson was arrested following a cocaine-induced standoff near Van Horn, at which time his motive became clear. The only other person in the world who knew that Harrelson did the hit on Judge Wood was Jimmy, who ordered it. Because Joe was simultaneously representing Jimmy, who was serving thirty years without parole on a drug charge at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, Harrelson had to assume that sooner or later Joe would learn the truth. But as his lawyer, Harrelson reasoned, anything Joe discovered about Wood’s murder would have to be kept confidential because of attorney-client privilege. And, indeed, Joe found out who shot Judge Wood—and who hired him—during an attorney-client interview he conducted with Harrelson after his arrest at the Harris County jail. By that time the FBI investigation into the judge’s assassination was more than two years old. Harrelson had been a suspect, but so had several others. He told Joe about the contract and drew a map showing where he had hidden the murder rifle. Joe was stunned.
The real shock, however, was yet to come: The FBI was bugging Harrelson’s cell—and also the visitors’ room at Leavenworth, where Joe was routinely subjected to Jimmy’s abuse. Though he was strung out on coke, Joe had by this point become the nominal head of the Chagra family, meaning it was his responsibility to visit Jimmy, who whined constantly and seemed to think the mess his life had become was Joe’s fault. A day after talking to Harrelson, Joe relayed what had been said about the Wood killing to his arrogant and tempestuous brother, who was furious. At one point in a rambling dialogue, Jimmy warned Joe that he was up to his neck in the murder plot.
“What have I done?” Joe asked.
“You know Harrelson knocked off the judge,” Jimmy told him.
“I don’t know that,” Joe replied.
What finally did Joe in was his inability to stand up to Jimmy. On another visit Jimmy told Joe, “You’re the one who said, ‘Do it, do it, do it.’” Joe tried to conceal his shock by talking tough, saying he never thought his brother would hire “an asshole” like Harrelson.
To those of us who knew the situation, Jimmy’s assertion that Joe made him “do it” was ludicrous, but it fit neatly into the government’s scenario. On the basis of the wiretaps, the FBI searched Joe’s home, turning up not only his private stash of drugs but also the map Harrelson had given him. The map led the feds to learn that the murder weapon had been purchased by Harrelson’s wife, Jo Ann. A short time later, Joe was arrested and held without bail, as were Jo Ann Harrelson and Liz Chagra, Jimmy’s wife, who was heard on another wiretap talking about delivering the payoff money.
Since much of the wiretapping was inadmissible in court, the government had a major problem with its case: The only witness who could connect Jimmy with Harrelson was Joe. But Joe absolutely refused to testify against his brother as a matter of family honor. When the government offered to try Jimmy separately in its desperation to nail Harrelson, Joe found himself in a predicament. If he didn’t concoct a lie about how he was really part of the conspiracy, thus allowing him to testify against Harrelson, he believed he would face a total of thirty-five to forty years on drug charges. Joe accepted a ten-year plea bargain in the Wood conspiracy, with the understanding that prosecutors would help him recover his law license.
Joe’s testimony put Harrelson in prison for life; ironically, in his separate trial, Jimmy was acquitted, thanks largely to Joe’s unwillingness to testify against him. Because he was a model prisoner Joe ended up spending only six and a half years behind bars. I visited him several times, once with my wife, Phyllis. Then, in the eight years after his release, Joe stayed clean and became a health nut. I testified at the hearing to determine if his law license should be restored, telling the same story I’ve told here, yet the prosecution never offered any assistance and the judge ruled that restoring the license would not meet “the ends of justice.” Joe had to support himself by writing briefs for other lawyers. Though he and his wife, Patty, divorced, they remained close.
After Joe was killed, the bad publicity inevitably returned, so Patty took their daughter, Samantha, a seventeen-year-old high school honor student, to all the television stations in El Paso—“just so they could see her face and know what they had put her through.” After that, Patty told me, the flavor of the stories softened. I promised Samantha that I would write that Joe was a good father, and I know damn well he was.