Charles Voyde Harrelson (July 23, 1938 – March 15, 2007) was an American organized crime figure who was convicted of assassinating federal judge John H. Wood, Jr., the first federal judge killed in the 20th century. He was the estranged father of actor Woody Harrelson.
Charles Harrelson was born on July 23, 1938 in Huntsville, Texas, the son of Alma Lee (née Sparks) and Voyde Harrelson. He was married to Nancy Hillman Harrelson, Jo Ann Harrelson, Diane Lou Oswald 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’s son, Woody Harrelson, became a well-known television and film actor. According to Woody, Harrelson disappeared from the family’s home in Houston in 1968, leaving his wife 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. In an interview, Woody revealed that he visited his father regularly in federal prison, though he still harbored mixed feelings for 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.”
Murder of Sam Degelia
Prior to the Wood murder, Harrelson was tried for the 1968 murder-for-hire killing of Hearne, Texas resident Sam Degelia, Jr. Harrelson was paid $2000 for the murder of Degelia, a grain dealer and father of four who was killed in McAllen, Texas. His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, although Pete Scamardo was also tried in the case, found guilty of being an accomplice to the murder, and sentenced to seven years probation. Harrelson was retried in 1973, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1978, after serving 5 years, he was released early for good behavior.
Murder of Judge John H. Wood, Jr.
Shortly after Harrelson was paroled in 1978, he was 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. Harrelson was convicted of killing Judge Wood after being hired by drug dealer Jamiel Chagra of El Paso. 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.
Harrelson was apprehended 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 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. Jamiel Chagra was acquitted of the murder when his brother Joe refused to testify against him. Chagra was represented by former mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, then a public defender. In a plea bargain, Jamiel Chagra admitted to his role in the murder of Judge Wood and to the attempted murder of a U.S. Attorney. Jo Ann Harrelson was also convicted of conspiracy and perjury.
In 2003, Chagra recanted his previous statements, and stated that someone other than Harrelson had in fact shot Judge Wood. His son, the actor Woody Harrelson, then attempted to have his father’s conviction overturned in order to secure a new trial, though without success. Chagra died in July 2008 of cancer.
Allegations of involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy
In September 1980, Harrelson surrendered to police after a six-hour standoff in which he was reportedly “high on cocaine”. During the standoff, he threatened suicide and stated that he had killed Judge Wood and President John F. Kennedy. 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.”
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.” According to Jim Marrs in 1989’s Crossfire, Harrelson is believed to be the youngest and tallest of the “three tramps” by many assassination researchers. 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.
Escape attempt and death
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. Harrelson was subsequently transferred to Supermax prison ADX Florence in Florence, 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.”
He was found unresponsive in his cell on March 15, 2007, having died of severe coronary artery disease. His Federal Bureau of Prisons Register number was 02582-016.