Jamiel Chagra

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Jamiel Chagra
Jamiel Chagra after prison.jpg
Jamiel Alexander Chagra

December 7, 1944
DiedJuly 25, 2008(2008-07-25) (aged 63)
Criminal statusReleased after serving 24 years
Spouse(s)Lynda (Chagra) Madrid
Grace Chagra (divorced)
Elizabeth Chagra (deceased)
ChildrenJimmy, Justin, Jackie, Cathy, Csilla, Christine
Parent(s)Abdou Joseph Chagra
Josephine Ayoub
Criminal chargeDrug trafficking
Penalty30 years imprisonment

Jamiel "Jimmy" Alexander Chagra (December 7, 1944 – July 25, 2008) was an American drug trafficker. He was implicated in the May 1979 assassination of United States District Judge John H. Wood Jr. in San Antonio, Texas.

Chagra was active as a trafficker in marijuana in the 1970s and at that time was one of the biggest drug traffickers operating out of Las Vegas and El Paso. According to one observer, he was "the undisputed marijuana kingpin of the Western world. He imported more high-grade ganja than anyone, tons at a time, planeload after planeload."[1]

Early life[edit]

Jamiel Chagra, known as Jimmy, was born in El Paso, Texas. He had two brothers, Lee and Joseph, who were both attorneys specializing in the legal defense of drug smugglers, and a sister Patsy. Jimmy got into drug smuggling in 1969 and became one of the largest smugglers in the United States, trafficking drugs from Mexico and Colombia by plane and boat. He had dealings with the Patriarca crime family and Joseph Bonanno, the retired head of the Bonanno crime family. Chagra was also a heavy gambler in Las Vegas, Nevada, and attracted large attention with his flamboyant ways.[2][3]

Chagra's drug dealings came under close scrutiny by law enforcement and the judicial system. On November 21, 1978, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kerr was shot at near his home by two men who fired 19 bullets at his car. Kerr escaped with only minor glass cuts. Kerr had been pursuing Chagra for his drug dealings.[4]

On December 23, 1978, Lee Chagra was shot and killed in his law office in El Paso. Lee had been involved with Jimmy in his drug smuggling and the killers took $450,000 that was owed to Joe Bonanno for a drug deal. A few months later, Lou Esper, a small-time drug dealer and acquaintance of Chagra, and two soldiers from Fort Bliss were charged with his murder.[5]

Murder rap[edit]

Chagra's downfall began in February 1979 when he was arrested on trafficking charges. He was scheduled to appear before United States District Judge John Wood, a judge who had a reputation for giving out the maximum sentence allowed for drug-related crimes. Chagra faced a possible life sentence without parole if convicted and a law clerk of the late judge told Joe Chagra, Jamiel's brother and attorney, that Judge Wood intended to give Chagra life without parole. Chagra allegedly attempted to bribe Judge Wood for $10 million. Facing life for smuggling, Jimmy Chagra allegedly decided to have the judge killed.

Chagra was accused of (and was acquitted of, although he later confessed to conspiracy in a deal to help his wife) hiring hitman Charles Harrelson (actor Woody Harrelson's father) to kill Wood for $250,000; on May 29, 1979, Judge Wood was murdered outside his home by a shot in the back. The authorities did not immediately suspect Chagra of involvement in the assassination. His drug case went to trial and Chagra was found guilty in August 1979 and sentenced to 30 years. Chagra jumped bail, but was captured six months later in Las Vegas.[6]

Harrelson was eventually caught and convicted of being the gunman after Chagra talked about the assassination with his brother Joe during Joe's visit to Jimmy in United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, after FBI agents placed microphones under the tables they were speaking at. The FBI's position was that even though Joe Chagra was a lawyer, he was talking to his brother as a brother and not an attorney; therefore, their conversations were not covered by attorney-client privilege.

Both Harrelson and Chagra's brother Joe were implicated in the assassination. Joe Chagra testified against the other defendants in exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice with a maximum sentence of ten years in a plea-bargain deal, although with an agreement that he would not testify against his brother Jimmy in a separate trial. Charles Harrelson got two consecutive life terms, Harrelson's wife Jo Ann got 25 years and Jimmy Chagra's wife Elizabeth was also sent to prison for 30 years for delivering the payout money. Jimmy Chagra himself was acquitted of the murder of Judge Wood in front of Judge William S. Sessions, future director of the FBI, although he was found guilty of obstructing justice and conspiring to smuggle drugs. Chagra's lawyer in the case was Oscar Goodman, future Mayor of Las Vegas. In a deal with the federal government, Chagra admitted to his role in the murder of Judge Wood and the attempted murder of Assistant United States Attorney James Kerr. He did this in order to have his wife released before she died and to have him transferred to a medical prison. His wife was never released and she died in custody of ovarian cancer at age 41.

Joe Chagra served six and a half years in prison (of his ten-year sentence) and was released. He died in an automobile accident in 1996.[7]

Later life and death[edit]

Chagra was released from prison for health reasons in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 9, 2003. He was reportedly placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program. The story surrounding the assassination of Judge Wood was profiled in an episode of City Confidential. A fictitious name reference to the Judge John Wood assassination also appeared in an "FBI Files" episode Dangerous Company as the show regularly changed names of real-life people to protect privacy. He was also used in FBI: The Untold Stories.

Chagra married his third wife, Lynda Ray, while living under the name James Madrid on November 22, 2005. They were married in Las Vegas.[8]

Chagra died of cancer on July 25, 2008. He had been living in Mesa, Arizona, with his wife.[9]


  1. ^ George Knapp, The pot king of the Western world, Las Vegas City Life, March 29, 2007
  2. ^ Jimmy Chagra; Smuggler Linked to Judge's Death Washington Post July 28, 2008[1]
  3. ^ No one ran harder, faster through Vegas Las Vegas Review-Journal July 15, 2012[2]
  4. ^ Crime Case Widening Ellensburg Daily Record February 22, 1979[3]
  5. ^ 3 Held in Killing of Flamboyant Lawyer Washington Post March 5, 1979[4]
  6. ^ Texas Drug, Gambling Figure Missing; High Bond Forfeited Sarasota Herald-Tribune August 24, 1979[5]
  7. ^ Lawrence van Gelder, "Joseph Chagra, 50, Lawyer Linked to Assassination, Dies", New York Times, December 15, 1996
  8. ^ Marriage license #D875871, Marriage License Records, Las Vegas.
  9. ^ James C. McKinley Jr., "Jamiel A. Chagra, 63, Drug Kingpin, Dies", New York Times, July 29, 2008

Further reading[edit]

  • Gary Cartwright, Dirty Dealing: Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border and the Assassination of a Federal Judge, 1998
  • Sally Denton and Roger Morris, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America, 2002
  • John L. Smith, Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman's Life from Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas, 2003