Dead men can tell some amazing tales

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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 degrees.

We are outside because I don’t want innocent golfers settling their two-dollar bogey 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. His voice has more gravel than Tobacco Road. I can tell he has had a hard life, and I’m aware that he’s recently been released from 24 years in a variety of 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. One of his neighbors in a nearby trailer park is Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who was an enforcer for John Gotti.

I can only imagine Bingo Night on this Byzantine block.

The man with whom I’m speaking’s real name is Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra, and if you’ve been in Las Vegas for any length of time, you know who he is.

For about 10 years in the Seventies, he was the highest-rolling gambler on the Strip. I’m currently negotiating the rights to a screenplay I’ve written on Chagra, so you’ll have to wait until the movie’s premiere to learn the whole story, but I can share a few tidbits I learned from that first interview in Mesa.

Jimmy had 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 on this day, 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 chapter 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 43 years in Las Vegas I have yet to meet anyone who ran harder and faster through this city than him.

Within an hour or two of his death several years ago, I received a phone call from his wife Linda that Jimmy was gone. I was just the second person she called with the news.

When you look at several facts about the Chagra story, you might agree with me that it is far and away the most dramatic and cinematic crime story in Las Vegas history.

Compare it to the other Vegas movie, Casino, that people often reference. That was about skimming money from the casino cages to send to The Boys in Chicago and Detroit and St. Louis.

This is about the only assassination of a Federal Judge in history, orchestrated by the biggest marijuana smuggler in the world and the biggest casino gambler of the day. The hitman was the biological father of an A-list movie star. The defense attorney who got Chagra acquitted of the murder charge was our own future three-term Las Vegas mayor — Oscar Goodman. The judge in the postponed original trial was William Sessions, who gained so much notoriety from the case that he was soon appointed to be the Director of the FBI.

Chagra’s trial was the second most expensive government investigation at the time, behind only the Warren Commission’s study of the assassination of President Kennedy.

I’m pretty sure there’s a movie or long-running Netflix series in there somewhere. I’d bet the farm on it.

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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