July 15, 2012 - 1:04 am
I’m seated across from a darkly handsome man in his early 60s. We are on the patio of a municipal golf course in Mesa, Ariz. It’s late June, and the temperature is 114. We are outside because I don’t want innocent golfers settling their $2 bets at the sandwich bar to overhear our conversation.
The man I’m speaking with could easily have played a lead role in “The Sopranos.” I can tell he’s had a hard life. I’m aware that he’s recently been released from 24 years in a variety of federal prisons. His name is James Madrid, but that’s not his real name.
He has been assigned the new moniker because of his membership in an exclusive club that you and I never want our children to join. It’s called the Federal Witness Protection Program.
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In 1969 Jimmy Chagra was 24 years old and working in the family carpet business in El Paso. The store’s slogan: “A floor without a rug is a like a kiss without a hug.”
It was steady work, but Jimmy knew his life was going nowhere. He had gone through basic training with an Army reserve unit, had unsuccessfully tried a semester of community college, and had a brief marriage behind him. Meanwhile, his eight-years-older brother Lee had graduated from the University of Texas Law School fourth in his class and was developing a reputation as one of the best drug defense attorneys in the Southwest.
Jimmy admired and envied Lee, especially the material things that his success provided: fast cars, faster women and gambling trips to Las Vegas.
Then one day Jimmy got a phone call that would change everything. It was from his buddy Pete Krutschewski, back from a tour in Vietnam as a highly decorated helicopter pilot. Pete explained that even with the many medals he’d earned fighting for his country, he’d been unable to find a good job.
Pete was bitter at following a brave and righteous path without any reward, and he convinced Chagra that with Jimmy’s fluency in Spanish, and his flying skills, they could become partners in the marijuana business. It was an industry that was sweeping the country, particularly on college campuses where so many students were against the war. Pot was the popular drug of choice to celebrate music, free love and the advent of a counter culture that drew its spiritual license from the heart of Haight-Ashbury and the Woodstock Generation.
On their first drug run from Mexico City in a rented plane, Jimmy and Pete unloaded more than 700 pounds of grade-A weed to a band of trust-fund hippies in Aspen. They netted $85,000 on the transaction. Jimmy Chagra would never look back.
Over the next 10 years, Jimmy and Pete and their posse of renegades would become arguably the largest marijuana importers in the world.
Their empire grew to a fleet of six planes and four freighter ships. They had the prime minister of the Bahamas, Lynden Pindling, on the payroll to allow their ships safe passage through the Bahamas. They also paid DEA officials and border cops to look the other way. Jimmy even cut a deal with Mafia crime boss Raymond Patriarca to allow his ships to unload their cargo along the Massachusetts coastline.
It was not long before Lee Chagra was drawn into his kid brother’s business. The lure of regular shipments that netted between $5 million and $10 million a drop was too great to pass up.
When Jimmy and Lee Chagra flew into Las Vegas in the mid-’70s on their gambling forays, they would bring millions of dollars of cash in foot lockers, which they would store in the casino cage at Caesars Palace.
“Count it out, and we’ll settle later,” Jimmy would tell the cashier. Many a night, the Chagra brothers would play all six spots on a blackjack table, for anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a hand. A pit boss once approached Jimmy and said the casino was short of cash because they’d been hit hard in the baccarat pit by some Asian high rollers. He asked Chagra if they could borrow $5 million from him. He made the hotel sign a marker.
He paid off one cocktail waitress’s $50,000 mortgage when he heard she was raising three kids by herself.
If “whale” was an operative term in the casinos back then, these guys were Moby Dick and his twin brother.
Jimmy once had Frank Sinatra moved to another room at Caesars, because he and his entourage wanted the Sinatra Suite. Although Frank was packing the showroom every night, the casino was netting more from Chagra’s gambling losses.
When Sydney Pollack was filming “The Electric Horseman” in the Caesars casino, Jimmy was given a small speaking role, in part because he was supplying primo weed to the crew and some of the actors.
Life was good for Jimmy Chagra throughout the 1970s, until it all came crashing down with the murder of his big brother around Christmas of 1978.
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Fast forward to the patio in Mesa, where we pick up on the conversation with the man now called James Madrid. It’s June 29, 2006.
Through numerous phone calls and close connections, including our former mayor who had successfully defended Chagra in what was called “the trial of the century,” I find myself sitting across from Jimmy Chagra in the only one-on-one filmed interview he has ever allowed.
Jimmy has been released from his long prison stretch in part because he has terminal lung cancer, and in part because he provided information on other crimes.
If it’s true that Dying Men Don’t Tell Lies, that might explain why in that initial session, and over the next 18 months, I become privy to the story behind the only assassination of a federal judge in U.S. history. I learn the details of how the father of actor Woody Harrelson first approached Chagra with a proposition to carry out the hit – which he was later convicted of – and what it’s like to stay alive in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary when other death row inmates know they will gain notoriety by taking out the most famous inmate in their cell block.
Jimmy tells me about a night he heard horrible screaming coming from the cell next to his, and how after a long moment of eerie silence a human head with blood pouring out the neck came rolling past his cell.
This is just one of dozens of grizzly tales I am to hear from this man with a fictitious name.
“Prison is not a nice place,” he tells me over and over again.
I can’t speak to the total truth of all the stories I got from Jimmy Chagra in the last year of his life, but the ones I was able to check out all proved to be true. And one thing I can say with certainty is that in my 37 years in Las Vegas, I have yet to meet anyone who ran harder and faster through this city than him.
Within an hour of his death on July 25, 2008, I received a phone call from his wife Linda that Jimmy was gone. He had six children from different wives, but I was just the second person she had called with the news.
There’s a movie or three in there somewhere.
Las Vegas author Jack Sheehan writes monthly for the Review-Journal.COLUMN DEBUT
Las Vegas author Jack Sheehan will write a monthly column for the Review-Journal beginning today. It will not be a typical newspaper column: little or no political material, some nostalgia, some biography, some autobiography, some history and generally true, although he says he’ll refuse to take a polygraph regarding small details.
Jack has been in Las Vegas nearly four decades, writing from and about the city the entire time. He taught writing and literature at UNLV for five years, published and edited city magazines here for longer than that. Sheehan has written 18 books, four screenplays and numerous magazine articles. He loves Las Vegas, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet.