Tuesday, April 05, 2005

More on Cornyn's theory

Senator Cornyn's remarks on how the pressure of unaccountability like steam building up in a boiler leads ineluctably to an explosion of violence against judges, got me to thinking about the only violence against judges I know anything about. Two recent crimes, one against a judge, and another against a judge's family, don't seem to have been political.

Nor was the killing of federal judge John Wood in 1979.

Wood, AKA "Maximum John," was very severe in his sentencing policies and was disliked not only by criminals, but by civil libertarians, who thought his sentences were sadistically punitive. He usually sent smalltime drug offenders away for many years. As long as the law allowed.

The case has long since been closed, correctly, in my opinion. Everyone in the world except for maybe 2 people, believe that Jimmy Chagra, an El Paso drug kingpin, paid a low-level crook named Charles Harrelson to assassinate Judge Wood. Chagra, however, was acquitted. He had a good lawyer. But the prosecutors came back with drug charges which got Chagra convicted to a life term, which he is still serving. Harrelson was convicted of being the hit man. One of the people who disbelieves in the accepted scenario is Harrelson's son, Woody, the now very famous actor.
The other was Vivian Chagra, Jimmy Chagra's ex-wife. Vivian is dead now. When my wife Kay and I lived in El Paso we were friends with Vivian, who was one of Kay's students.
Vivian eventually became my wife's best friend. Kay was drawn to her for her red-haired beauty and her certainty and her dazzling smile, though it got less and less frequent over the years we knew her. Vivian came from a little Texas farm, a hardscrabble caliche and gravel xeriscape, but she was vibrant and ambitious, and changed her original name from Gracene because Vivian was the name she wanted to have, and she believed that Gracene gave away her hillbilly origins, which she was desperate to get away from. In El Paso she had married a high-roller gambler, a Lebanese carpet salesman who rose in the world and eventually became an important criminal. Jimmy Chagra. She was divorced by the time Kay knew her, but still belonged in a sort of outcaste way to the big Lebanese family because her two daughters did. She had little to do with her ex-husband Jimmy but was in love with his brother Lee, with whom she had been having an affair for years.

Lee was a renowned El Paso criminal lawyer, who himself lived on the edges of the law, but was really, really good in front of a jury. He was hated by the police, the prosecutors, and the judges.

I only met Lee once, at 2 in the morning in front of the El Paso County jail. I was standing on the sidewalk which was covered with half dried spit and big fat flies torpid but awake at that hour in the neon and mercury vapor haze of poisonous smoke pumped into the border sky from the high stacks of the Asarco copper smelter. The streets echoed with the late night canyon-reverberatory slam and growl of remote switch engines, and the distant wail of sirens. The flies and ourselves were the only living beings around except for a dog asleep on the floor of an all night Bail-Bond-Lawyer office across the street where the door stood open. On account of the radiant heat of the downtown concrete, floodlit parked cars two blocks away rippled with the intervening heated darkness. Then around the corner swung a very long, and of course black, Cadillac limousine which pulled up and stopped in a reserved-for-police-vehicles space, and out got Lee Chagra, small and alone, from the driver's seat of his vast car.
He had come to get one of Vivian's sisters out of jail where she had been put earlier in the evening for assaulting a bartender with a shoe and attacking the arresting officers with her teeth, both feet, and the handcuffs they had just put on her as she was being booked in a precinct-house in far northwest El Paso. Before they subdued her she broke out the front window of the station. Vivian said later that her sister had become disoriented because of a bad combination of LSD and whiskey and disco strobe lights. Vivian had gone to the station to try to arrange her bail but left when she heard the screaming and saw the window shatter outwards releasing a shrill stream of curses and a glimpse of the shuffling struggles normally kept bottled up in such places. Vivian then called us to take her down to the county jail because that was where they were taking her sister and Vivian wanted someone who had not been drinking to drive.

We suggested she call Lee, which she did. Lee Chagra was dressed in a rumpled sort of corduroy purple suit, shiny black patent leather cowboy boots, a lot of jewels, and a huge cowboy hat only partly squashed down over his long bushy hair which obtained its freedom in unexpected directions from beneath its cover.
"Hi" he said, "you wait out here, and I'll get her out. It won't be long," and so we stood there while the big whip antenna on the Cadillac slowly oscillated from its sudden stop with a diminishing shocka whocka noise, and his police radio occasionally dashed us with harsh and brittle static and the latest facts on the night's police events.
Fifteen minutes later he came out with Vivian's sister, whose clothes were stained with dried blood. She was blinking and somewhat bewildered, a lean and hard but kind of good looking woman with an unexpected air of frailty. She mumbled apologies to everyone and said she didn't remember exactly what had happened.
Lee Chagra seemed shy, which surprised me, but friendly, and said "don't worry about it" when the sister asked how she could ever pay him back. He had paid the bond himself and now refused anyone's money. Then he got back into his black car and drove off into the night, and we took Vivian and her sister home.

Vivian said she what she liked about Lee most was his generosity.

Everyone knew that most of Lee's clients, who often went scot-free, were guilty as hell, so when Lee was murdered right before Christmas in 1978 a lot of people I knew thought the police had arranged it. In El Paso this was not inconceivable. But it turned out that it was an ordinary robbery gone bad. Lee was holding the stakes in a poker game, thousands of dollars, and it was too big a temptation for a poor-relation Lebanese who paid two Ft. Bliss soldiers a few hundred dollars to carry out a heist, during the course of which Lee was shot and killed.

Vivian made poor decisions in life and was always near destitution, except for her pay as a waitress and erratic child support from Jimmy. And occasional unreliable gifts from Lee. All she knew how to do was be a cocktail waitress. She was good at it, but still it was hard to support her children and pay the mortgage and go to school on what she earned as a waitress. But she managed. After Lee died Vivian started dating another man, who was killed in a car wreck. But that didn't seem to matter to her much. She was never quite the same after receiving the news of Lee's murder that Christmas Eve.

Vivian continued to go to school, working at night at bars in El Paso. She majored in anthropology and minored in French. She got her degree. In the meantime her ex-husband Jimmy Chagra had arrived in the big leagues of crime, making millions trafficking in dope and losing millions gambling in Las Vegas, according to El Paso legend.

Then came the killing of John Wood.

Vivian moved away from El Paso. She worked as camp-cook on an archaeological dig up on the high plains. She disappeared for a while--something to do with Jimmy's testimony in a trial and the federal witness protection program. Jimmy was afraid of reprisals against his family, Vivian said. After maybe a year she reappeared, back in central Texas, unhappy with the protection program and no longer in fear of any reprisals. She had a new witness-protection surname, which she kept. She rented a house out in Buda, a small town 15 miles from Austin, so her kids would have a country atmosphere. She started writing a book which would vindicate Jimmy. No one could understand why she thought he was innocent.

Probably Woody Harrelson would.

That was when she got cancer, in her case an advanced, invasive, and rapidly growing cervical tumor. When the symptoms appeared she had to choose between letting her children go hungry or go to the doctor, and she made another bad decision--she put off going to the doctor till it was too late. What a country we live in. She died of cancer.

Her daughters, Jimmy's children, were sent off to live with one of Vivian's sisters who was a fundamentalist. They rebelled, and came to live with Kay and me. Very sweet kids, actually, who were kind of troubled by the turmoil of their lives up till then.

They also believe Jimmy is innocent. They go visit him in prison.

If Jimmy did it, it was not that Judge Wood was unaccountable, per Senator Cornyn's theory. It was to avoid having Wood on the bench in his upcoming drug trial. Nothing more.

update: I read recently that Jimmy is out of prison and part of the witness protection program. I have not tried to check this. Also, I have recently found a photo of Vivian in the course of a personal project of scanning a lot of old negatives. If you wish to see what she looked like a couple of years before she died you can see the photo--which I think is a terrific character study-- here.

update 2: I originally wrote that Judge Wood was killed in 1982. It was 1979. (Thanks to F.P. Gunter for the correction.)

Note on the comments: The two entries I have on the Chagras have gotten more comments than any others on this blog. Unfortunately Haloscan, the free commenting utility I unwisely chose when I started this blog, is going out of business. Thus the comments will probably disappear at some point in the next few weeks. (New comments will supposedly be possible using the native Blogger comment utility, but the old comments will go away.) Please be assured that I am not eradicating the comments myself. On the contrary I thought the ongoing comments, sometimes approaching a conversation, were fascinating, and I have enjoyed having them here. I am sorry they are going to be taken down.

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