By Brad Dison
Charles Voyde is considered by some to be a legend in Texas because of his high-profile criminal history. Charles was a carpet salesman, professional gambler, and a convicted contract killer, a hitman. Charles was born in 1938 in Lovelady, Texas. His criminal career began sometime in the late 1950s and escalated from petty crimes to murder.
Charles had a wife and two children, the oldest of which was Woodrow. In 1968, when Woodrow was seven years old, Charles was arrested for the murder of Alan Harry Berg, also a carpet salesman. Woodrow’s father disappeared from his life. While awaiting trial, Charles and two others were charged with the murder of wealthy grain broker Sam Degelia near McAllen, Texas. In September 1970, Charles was acquitted of murdering Berg. After the first trial for Sam Degelia’s murder ended in a deadlocked jury, Charles was convicted in 1973 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. According to trial testimony, Charles was paid just $2,000 to murder Degelia. In 1978, after serving five years of his sentence, Charles was released for good behavior.
Like Charles, Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra was a carpet salesman and a professional gambler. Jimmy was also a drug trafficker operating out of Las Vegas, Nevada and El Paso, Texas. In February 1979, Jimmy was indicted by a federal grand jury on cocaine and marijuana smuggling charges in Midland, Texas, and the case was assigned to Federal Judge “Maximum” John Wood. The judge earned the nickname “Maximum” for his tough treatment of drug dealers and smugglers. Jimmy tried back channels, and, when that failed, threatened Judge Wood, but he refused to step down as the presiding judge in Jimmy’s case. Jimmy decided to hire a hitman.
According to courtroom testimony, in April 1979, Jimmy Chagra met Charles and Jo Ann, Charles’ third wife, in Las Vegas. At that meeting, Charles agreed to murder the federal judge for $250,000. In the following month, Jo Ann, using the false name Fay King, bought a Weatherby rifle in a Dallas gun shop. A few days later, May 29, 1979, Judge John Wood was standing outside his car at his home in San Antonio, purportedly looking at a flat tire on either his or his wife’s car. A neighbor heard what he thought was a car backfiring and looked out of his window and saw the judge fall into his car. He had been shot in the back. He fell into and died in his wife’s lap. In the following month, Teresa Starr Jasper, Charles’ stepdaughter, picked up a briefcase which contained $250,000 in Las Vegas from Elizabeth Chagra, Jimmy’s wife.
The murder of the federal judge prompted a massive investigation, and, in August 1979, Jimmy Chagra was convicted in absentia in federal court of continuing criminal activity and sentenced to 30 years without parole. Five months later, Jimmy was captured in Las Vegas and sent to Leavenworth federal prison. While in prison, Jimmy bragged to another inmate, Jerry Ray James, that he had Judge John Wood killed and provided some specific details. Jerry Ray shared the information he learned with investigators. In September 1980, Charles was arrested in Van Horn, Texas following a 10-hour cocaine-fueled standoff with police. It was when news broke of the 10-hour standoff that Woodrow learned the whereabouts of his father whom he had not seen in over ten years.
During interrogation, Charles admitted to killing Judge John Wood. In all fairness, during the same interrogation he also claimed to have killed several other people including President John F. Kennedy. In April 1982, a federal grand jury indicted Jimmy, Jimmy’s little brother Joe Chagra, Jimmy’s wife Elizabeth, along with Charles and Jo Ann for conspiracy and other charges in the John Wood murder case. Joe Chagra made a plea-bargain for a lesser sentence. Elizabeth Chagra was found guilty of conspiracy for delivering the $250,000 payment to Charles’ stepdaughter. Jo Ann, who bought the rifle that killed Judge John Wood was sentenced to 25 years in prison for obstruction. Charles, the hitman who admitted to killing the judge, was sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences for the murder. Jimmy was ultimately acquitted of hiring Charles to kill Judge John Wood but was found guilty on numerous drug trafficking charges.
In the late 1980s, Charles and Woodrow grew closer. Woodrow visited his father in prison at least once a year. In 1985, Woodrow became a bartender and began helping his father to get a new trial. In 1987, when Charles married his fourth wife by proxy, Woodrow stood in for his father during the ceremony. Charles argued that his legal representation was not adequate in his 1979 trial. “No matter what you did,” Charles said, “you have a right under that Constitution to a fair and impartial hearing of your peers, and I did not get that.” In 1998, Woodrow told reporters that it was the “sad truth” that the legal system “seems to work a lot better for those who have enough money.” Woodrow fought to get his father a new trial until March 21, 2007, when the 69-year-old contract killer died in prison of a heart attack.
Woodrow once said the fight to get his father a new trial cost a lot of money, but his bartending job paid more than most bartending jobs. You see, Woodrow, the son of a hit man, was a bartender at the Boston, Massachusetts bar “where everybody knows your name.” The name of the fictional bar was Cheers. Charles Voyde Harrelson was the father of actor Woodrow “Woody” Harrelson.
1. El Paso Times, May 30, 1979, p.1.
2. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 21, 1984, p.89.
3. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 25, 1984, p.69.
4. Tampa Bay Times, August 7, 1998, p.22.
5. The Monitor (McAllen, Texas), July 16, 1999, p. 26.
6. Austin American-Statesman, March 22, 2007, p.21.