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On September 1, 1980, police outside of Vanhorn, Texas were locked in a six-hour standoff with a fugitive and suspected assassin. He was Charles Voyde Harrelson – father of Hollywood A-lister Woody Harrelson.
Crazed and hallucinating from injecting cocaine, Charles Harrelson had convinced himself there was a bomb hidden in the muffler of his car. He pulled over to the side of the highway and began blasting at the car with his gun, blowing his tyre.
Harrelson – shirtless and wearing cutoff jeans and gold chains – held himself hostage. With his gun under his chin, he threatened to kill himself and claimed – among other things – that he killed John F. Kennedy.
Harrelson was later sentenced to two life sentences for shooting the federal judge John H. Wood, nicknamed “Maximum John” for his tough sentences. He was set to preside over the trial of marijuana kingpin Jimmy Chagra.
The life and crimes of Charles Harrelson are now the subject of Son of a Hitman, an investigative Spotify podcast by journalist Jason Cavanagh. Speaking with witnesses, lawyers, law enforcement, and relatives of his victims (of both convicted and alleged crimes), Son of a Hitman paints a damning, ruthless portrait of Charles V. Harrelson: a murderer-for-hire; a woman-beater; a con-man; a drug mover and user; and debt collector.
One wild story even has him smuggling weapons into Cuba with Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald. The sister of one murder victim described Harrelson as “cold as ice… there was nothing in his eyes.”
While researching the story, even Cavanagh thought to himself: "Is he the personification of evil?’”
But did Charles Harrelson really kill Judge Wood? There are questions hanging over his guilt: a witness testimony under hypnosis; a conveniently-found rifle stock; and modus operandi that doesn’t fit the man. In an archive interview, replayed in Son of a Hitman, Woody Harrelson said: “I think that it was not a fair trial… I‘m not saying my father’s a saint but I think he’s innocent of that.”
Woody had also said be believed his father was a secret CIA operative. “I shouldn’t get into this right now,” Woody said. “This is where we’re going to get into trouble… I know it’s true.”
On the heels of true crimes podcasts such as Serial and In the Dark – investigations which pulled apart both the crimes and process of law and order – Son of a Hitman is Jason Cavanagh’s first venture into podcasting.
Cavanagh already knew of the story about Woody Harrelson’s father (“I took it to be tabloid fodder,” he says) but began to think seriously about investigating the story after meeting Woody’s younger brother (and fellow actor) Brett Harrelson.
Charles Harrelson’s three sons – Jordan, Woody, and Brett – grew up largely without their father. He was in and out of prison. But they didn’t necessarily believe he committed the crime for which he was ultimately given his life sentences. “They had questions,” says Cavanagh.
Born in 1938 and raised in Lovelady, Texas, Charles Harrelson served in the Navy as a sonar man and, at times, worked as a salesman, and repaired dental equipment. He was also a professional gambler and a self-confessed “expert card mechanic”. “I could put any hand you want at any position you want it, by simply opening up a new deck of cards and shuffling them,” he once said.
Harrelson was a known womaniser and one ex-girlfriend, Sandra Sue Attaway, describes how she instantly fell in love with him. A Texas Ranger calls him: “A con man with personality.”
“Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has said he was incredibly smart and incredibly charming,” says Jason Cavanagh.
Harrelson was first tried for the 1968 murder of Alan Berg, a carpet salesman from Houston. At the time it was alleged that a rival carpet seller named Frank DiMaria had hired Harrelson to kill Berg. Sandra Sue Attaway, who testified against Harrelson, claimed that she helped lure Berg to a bar, where Harrelson forced him into a car at gunpoint and shot him the head. Berg’s skeletal remains were found in a marshy ditch six months later. The next morning, a picture of a police officer holding Berg’s skull was published on the front page of the newspaper. (DiMaria was found not guilty of being involved in Berg's murder.)
As part of his investigation, Cavanagh tracked down Frank DiMaria, and a brief phone conversation is included on the podcast. “I have nothing to say about that,” says DiMaria about his association with Harrelson. “Nothing at all”.
DiMaria is somehow both cordial and chilling, and hangs up quickly. “When I spoke to Frank DiMaria, I realised that I do need to be careful,” Cavanagh says. “I’m in Houston, I’m alone, and no one knows exactly where I am…”
Cavanagh had planned to show up at DiMaria’s place, but Alan Berg’s brother David warned him bluntly: “Do not go over there to try to talk to him. Just don’t do that.”
“Going into this I knew I’d be looking at this intersection of different worlds that were potentially dangerous,” says Cavanagh. “The FBI, CIA, organised crime, and Hollywood – a lot of people who have an interest in not having the full picture told. One person told me that he knows how to ‘disappear people’. He can make that happen.”
Harrelson was found not guilty of Berg’s murder, thanks to his celebrity defence attorney Percy Foreman, who was known for representing organised crime figures, James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, and Jack Ruby.
“How Harrelson afforded him and how he was even put into contact with Foreman in the first place is beyond me,” says Cavanagh on the podcast.
Harrelson was next tried for the shooting of Texas grain dealer named Sam Degelia. According to the prosectuion, Harrelson had been hired by Degelia’s business partner, who wanted the life insurance payout. Degelia was found in a barn, shot twice in the head. An accomplice recalled Harrelson saying: “Isn’t it hell when your buddy kills you to collect the insurance?”
The trial ended in a deadlock jury and Harrelson had to wait in jail for three years before the retrial. One prison guard recalls how Harrelson always had money and status in prison. He even paid off a guard so he could have sex with another inmate’s sister.
Harrelson was found guilty at the retrial. On the way out of court, one jurors was overheard whispering to Harrelson: “I’m sorry, that’s the best I could do.” Harrelson was sentenced to 15 years but served just five.
On May 29, 1979, Harrelson – according to the official version of events – committed the sniper-style execution of Judge John Wood. It was the morning of Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra's drugs trial.
Chagra was a drug trafficker from El Paso, Texas who was responsible for 85 per cent of the marijuana imported into the United States during the Seventies. According to Son of a Hitman, Chagra made $100 million in a decade.
Wood was checking a flat tyre outside his home when he was shot in the back. It was the first murder of federal judge in over a century and became the biggest FBI investigation outside of the Kennedy assassination.
Texas Rangers first tipped the FBI off about Harrelson as a potential suspect. When Harrelson was arrested in September 1980, he was already a fugitive on weapons charges and severely strung out. In a cocaine-fuelled stupor, Harrelson wrote confessional notes in his hotel room. He claimed that he had organised a deal in which his three sons would be paid $100,000 each, and that he hadn’t killed anyone who “was undeserving.”
“Since death is certain I should only be credited with speeding up a natural process,” Harrelson wrote. “My marker should read ‘He did his part for ZPG – zero population growth.’”
“He was hallucinating and convinced there were FBI agents surrounding his hotel – which there very likely were,” says Cavanagh. “But it’s hard to know where the hallucination ends and reality begins for him there.”
Two days later – after his manic six-hour standoff – Harrelson was arrested. The trial began in September 1982 and ran for two and half months, with 94 witnesses.
Evidence against him included recorded conversations between Jimmy Chagra and Chagra's brother Joe; a rifle stock linked to a purchase by Harrelson’s wife; and an eyewitness who underwent hypnosis. Cavanagh calls the decision to use hypnosis “questionable judgment” on the FBI’s part: a hypnosis testimony would never be admissible in court now. Speaking on the podcast, even the witness herself, Chris Lambros, says that “admissibility was stretched to its absolute limits” to secure a conviction. And the long-range sniper shooting doesn't fit Harrelson's other known and alleged murders.
Charles Harrelson was sentenced to two life sentences. Jimmy Chagra was later acquitted of the murder, but served 24 years for drug trafficking. Harrelson died in 2007 inside the Florence supermax prison. Jason Cavanagh says that during his investigation he’s gone back and forth on whether Harrelson really killed Maximum John.
“My mind has changed – I don’t know if I’m just an easy witness!” he laughs. “As I spoke to people involved in this I swung wildly from one angle to the other. Sometimes I’ve gone way down the rabbit hole and I come up with my own elaborate conspiracy theories – because I’ve heard some crazy ones! You try to make sense of it and then some new piece of evidence comes to light. I just present the evidence as it comes and let the audience make up their minds.”
The biggest conspiracy of all, of course, is the JFK conspiracy. Could Charles Harrelson really have been the man behind the grassy knoll? When someone starts raving about JFK, it’s usually an indication that they’ve lost the plot.
“I’ve spoken to people who knew Charles Harrelson and believe he was in Dallas, in Dealey Plaza, on the day JFK was assassinated,” says Cavangah. “I also spoke to the FBI agent who was the head of the Judge Wood investigation and was on the house select committee for JFK. He said in no uncertain terms, ‘Of course he was not.’ But that's the company line – that Lee Harvey Oswald did it. I’ve heard arguments for and against and there’s more information to come…”
Just as interesting is the reaction of Harrelson’s sons. In some ways, it's framed from the perspective of them not knowing the full story. Cavanagh says it was "a little challenging” telling them details about who he really was. Interviewed on the podcast, Brett Harrelson believes there’s an “irony” to his father's final sentencing: it could be the one murder that he didn’t commit.
“I think he probably didn’t kill Judge Wood,” says Brett. “But I think the state had to find somebody and I think he would have been the easiest one to convict. Some heavy s–––.”
Eldest brother Jordan seems more resigned to their father’s guilt. “Do I believe he did it? Do I believe he could have done it?” Jordan asks himself. “Yes. Yes.”
Though Woody Harrelson isn’t interviewed on the podcast, he has spoken before about learning his father was a killer.
“I was 11 or 12 when I heard his name mentioned on a car radio,” Woody told The Guardian in 2012. “I was in the car waiting for a lady who was picking me up from school, helping my mum, and anyway I was listening to the radio and it was talking about Charles V Harrelson and his trial for murder and blah blah blah blah and I’m sitting there thinking there can’t be another Charles V Harrelson. I mean, that’s my dad! It was a wild realisation. Then the woman got in the car and saw my face and realised something was up. She was a very kind lady.”
Woody also admitted spending “a couple of million” trying to free his father. “I tried for years to get him out. To get him a new trial,” Woody said. “I don’t know he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad.”
But has Woody heard the podcast? “I’ve been in touch with Woody’s longtime assistant,” says Cavanagh. “They’re aware of the project. Whether Woody has listened to all the episodes… I haven’t heard any direct feedback, but I have a feeling he’s probably listening.”
With three more episodes to go, Cavanagh says the investigation comes to some “revelations” about Judge Wood’s assassination – particularly about an informant who the FBI originally discarded (“I think because I’m not a cop, people have told me things they wouldn’t tell the FBI under oath,” says Cavanagh). Even if there's no definite conclusion, Son of a Hitman is dark and gripping stuff. I ask Cavanagh what he makes of the man himself.
“I think he did some terrible things over the course of his life,” he says about Harrelson. “And I think he’s someone who lived by his own moral code and had a bizarre philosophy about the world and life. Certainly a unique and fascinating character.”
New episodes of Son of a Hitman are available every Tuesday on Spotify