Joseph Chagra, 50, Lawyer Linked
to Assassination, Dies
The New York Times Dec. 15, 1996
Lawrence Van Gelder
Joseph Chagra, a Texas lawyer who admitted his complicity
in the first assassination of a Federal judge in more than a century,
died last Sunday in Thomason Hospital in El Paso. He was 50.
His son, Joseph Jr., said Mr. Chagra's death was caused by injuries
from an automobile accident on Dec. 6 that also killed two passengers.
Mr. Chagra returned to El Paso in 1988 from a Federal prison in Stafford, Ariz.,
where he had served six and a half years of a 10-year sentence for conspiracy.
Mr. Chagra was a pivotal figure in a dramatic 1979 murder case,
and his testimony helped convict Charles Voyde Harrelson, the father of the
actor Woody Harrelson, of killing Judge John H. Wood Jr., an enemy of drug traffickers.
''I asked him if he was the one who murdered Judge Wood,
and he said he was,'' Mr. Chagra testified in a San Antonio Federal Court.
On the morning of May 29, 1979, Judge Wood, 63, was slain
in the driveway of his town house in San Antonio, struck in the back by a bullet
from a high-powered rifle. The assassination came at the height of a
Justice Department campaign to slow the flow of illicit drugs
across the Mexican border.
Almost immediately, investigators turned to Mr. Chagra's plush law offices.
Mr. Chagra was one of three sons of a Lebanese rug merchant who had emigrated from
Mexico to El Paso. The three had risen from an unremarkable middle-class upbringing
to live among El Paso's wealthiest residents.
Less than a year before Judge Wood was slain, Lee Chagra,
Joseph's older brother, who had defended numerous narcotics suspects
in Judge Wood's court, was killed in his office by armed robbers.
Just after Judge Wood was killed, Joseph Chagra, then 31,
said the slaying was the worst thing that could have happened to his other brother,
Jamiel, 32, who was known as Jimmy. Jimmy Chagra, who was facing
numerous narcotics charges, would become a suspect in the killing.
The Chagras said they were convinced that Judge Wood, who was scheduled
to preside over Jimmy's case, had a bias against them. Judge Wood denied
any impropriety and refused to remove himself from the case.
Jimmy's trial was scheduled to begin on the day the judge died.
By September 1982, five suspects were under indictment:
Joseph and Jimmy Chagra; Jimmy's wife, Elizabeth, and Mr. Harrelson and
his wife, Jo Ann. Jimmy Chagra was granted a separate trial.
Joseph Chagra accepted a plea bargain. He agreed to testify against
Mr. Harrelson and pleaded guilty to conspiracy in return for a
10-year prison sentence and relief from having to testify against Jimmy.
The prosecutors alleged that Jimmy,
who was serving a 30-year term as a drug trafficker, had paid Mr. Harrelson
$250,000 to kill the judge.
Mr. Chagra testified not only that Mr. Harrelson had told him he had
killed Judge Wood, but also that his brother had suggested killing the judge
and had identified Mr. Harrelson as the man he paid to do so.
On Dec. 14, 1982, a Federal jury in San Antonio found Mr. Harrelson guilty
of conspiracy to murder, murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
Mrs. Chagra was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder
and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Jo Ann Harrelson was found guilty
of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
At a subsequent trial, held in Florida because of the publicity in Texas,
Jimmy Chagra was acquitted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder but
convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to possess more
than half a ton of marijuana with intent to sell. Joseph Chagra did not testify.
In addition to his son and brother, Mr. Chagra is survived by his mother,
Josephine, and two sisters, Samantha and Patsy. All but Jimmy live in El Paso.