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Everybody has secrets and skeletons. For some, the skeletons they bear aren’t even their own. Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson is one of these people. Celebrities may be able to escape their taxes, but like the rest of us, they cannot escape the condition of being human and things that come with it, like the tangential feeling of familial shame. In this case, father of actor Woody Harrelson, Charles Harrelson put his family in the spotlight in the opposite way of his son, causing scrutiny and plenty of scandals. If your family situation is a little dysfunctional, read this and know that you aren’t alone… or allow yourself to forget about yours for a while, ‘cuz this one a doozy.

Versatile, Texas-born actor Woody Harrelson, seen in box office hits like Natural Born Killers, Seven Pounds, and Zombieland along with hit TV shows like True Detective and Cheers, was raised by his single mother, Diane Oswald. Meanwhile, his father was…well, killing people. While pre-A lister Woody was just being a young Texan and perfecting that drawl we love so much, his father was out in the world causing chaos. Hella chaos. His father was the notorious and controversial Charles V. Harrelson, and in case you don’t already know, he was a hitman.

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Finding His Calling

Charles Voyde Harrelson was born in Lovelady, Texas in 1938. He left Texas to join the Navy, and shortly after found his way to Los Angeles. This is where he met, married, and had three sons with Diane Lou Oswald, Woody’s mother. Not too soon after that, an armed robbery landed him in prison. But via “good behavior”- or as most people call it “snitching”, he got his sentence shortened.

Now, it appears that Charles Harrelson tried on many career hats before shooting for the stars-or targets. He sold dental equipment and encyclopedias at one point. In 1968, once he was divorced from Diane and on was wife number 2 (of 4), he was a full-time gambler. While the jobs he held seemed inconsistent the one thing that remained was his fervor for making fast money. While in Houston, Texas with his second wife, the Lonestar spirit must have struck him. Because it was in Houston that he started his career as a contract killer. They say they he even made business cards to the tune of “Have gun will travel” and “Hitman”.

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A {Familial} Racket:

It’s assumed that his contract killer career notches upwards of 20 people. However, he’s only charged for two of them. One of his first kills wasn’t necessarily newsworthy, but it is a bit of a racket. The short version is that Harrelson was contracted to murder a man named Alan Berg, an unassuming salesman (not the DJ) from Houston, Texas. The person who put the hit out on Berg used to work with him and the rest of the Berg family in their carpet business. He’d left the company and became a business competitor, but clearly still felt jilted enough over something because be offered Harrelson $1500 to kill him.

That’s really all fluff for the Alan Berg story. It gets interesting when Berg’s father hired a private investigator to find out who killed his son. He hired a man named Claude Harrelson – one of Charles Harrelson’s many siblings. As it turns out, the Harrelson brothers choose loosely similar occupation types. There isn’t much public information on them but according to the Houston Chronicle, one was an FBI agent, another was a polygraph operator, and there were alleged other family members who worked within the law. Charles, however, worked outside of it. Claude, teamed with Charles in this instance to scam the Berg family to get upwards of $3k to “find” Alan Berg’s remains. And by hiring one of the best criminal lawyers, Percy Foreman, (who helped James Earl Ray walk clean of killing MLK Jr.) Charles Harrelson managed to be acquitted for the Berg murder. Alan’s brother, David Berg, has since written a memoir entitled, Run, Brother, Run”

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Making History: The Murder of A San Antonio Judge

Harrelson’s biggest kill was a fellow Texan, which clearly meant nothing to him. This job was ordered by El Paso drug lord/ kingpin, Jamiel Chagra, some called him “Jimmy.” Chagra was essentially staring down a life sentence for drug smuggling. He hadn’t gone to court yet, but he was set to appear in front of U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. in the summer of 1979. The original court date was May 29, 1979, but got rescheduled. However, the judge was found dead near his car at his San Antonio home on that exact date. Chagra paid Harrelson $250,000 to kill U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. aka “Maximum John.”

He’d earned the nickname because he was notorious for giving out particularly hard (should we say, maximum?) sentences to drug dealers. It was the late seventies, and the “War on Drugs” was re-enforcing and he did his part by giving almost anyone mixed up in drugs, especially drug dealers, life sentences. So, Chagra knew that if he faced this judge, he’d be in prison for good. He hoped that by getting Judge Wood out-of-the-way, he would be assigned to appear before a new judge and thus receive a lighter sentence. Seems simple enough, but the whole judge dying suspiciously and so near the court date makes things questionable. So yes, Chagra became the number one suspect. Especially when that murder makes history. Meaning Judge Wood was the first federal judge to be assassinated in the 20th century. And it raised hell. Not only did it shake San Antonio, but it was also dubbed the crime of the century. The President called it an assault on the entire American justice system. The pressure was put on the United States FBI to figure it out.

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The Beginning of the End

Harrelson was questioned and let go early on in Judge Wood’s trial. He was released because there wasn’t enough evidence at the time connecting him to Judge Wood’s trial. If you’re wondering why his name came up so quickly to the authorities, it’s because not even a year prior, he had been in jail for something bizarrely similar. Another murder, naturally. That is essentially what did him in. He had recently killed a Texas grain dealer, Sam Degelia, at the request of his business partner. Harrelson sometimes pushed drugs for Scamardo. He owed him a favor, though because he lost him a large sum of money when he had to dispose of a heroin shipment when he got pulled over by police. Well, Scamardo decided he wanted that money to come out of an expensive life insurance payout- via the death of his business partner, Sam Degelia. He had planned to keep most of it that money for himself but offered Harrelson $2k. So, Harrelson killed Degelia. He was tried for the murder and sentenced 15 years in prison, he walked free 5 later right after that was when he killed Judge Wood.

It took the FBI years and grueling $11 million FBI investigation to uncover who-done-it and then find Harrelson. They brought in Harrelson under an anonymous tip-in. But not before a thematic six-hour drug-laden police standoff complete with guns, expletives, car explosions, empty suicide threats and a woman to convince the hitman to turn himself in. Amidst the standoff, Harrelson was high on some really strong cocaine. Because, he admitted to not only killing the judge but also JFK, which, literally nobody had asked him about. (Would it be too much to make a movie with Woody Harrelson reenacting this scene?) This was the beginning of the end.

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Harrelson sat in jail even though there was no hard evidence against him for murdering Wood. High confessions didn’t quite hold up in court. Until Johnny Ray Spinelli, a notoriously bad guy who had a neighboring cell agreed to be a snitch. Over the course of a couple of months, the two talked and played chess and Spinelli recorded Harrelson’s confessions and eventually testified against him in court. And even though Harrelson was represented by his trusty lawyer, Percy Foreman, sniping a District Judge in broad daylight is much bigger than killing a carpet salesman. With the world watching and a crime this scandalous, not even Percy Foreman could keep Harrelson from serving time. Just like that, he was handed two consecutive life sentences, carted over to prison and began his new life as prisoner #02582-016. Chagra, however, was acquitted and hushed into the witness protection program as a reward for working with the government on this case.

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Did Charles Voyde Harrelson Kill JFK?

Harrelson admitted twice to having fired the shot that killed President John F. Kennedy. One of those times was when he was arrested for Delgia’s murder, high on cocaine and another was in the conversation to his prison neighbor. He later blamed the statement on being high and trying to land big jobs and make money. Conspiracy theorists took his words and ran with it, claiming him to be one of the “three ramps” involved in the JFK 1995 murder. Taking it a bit further, they believe that it might be true because Woody’s mom, his second wife, shares the same last name as Lee Harvey Oswald, the killer of JFK, her name being Diane Oswald. Are they related? If not, it’s a strange coincidence. If this is true, a psychologist might say that it would make sense that she ended up with a man similar to someone in her family. While the three tramps have since been identified, some people still believe it was him.  But, we never really know, do we? Everyone has their secrets.

A Hitman and His Son

As Oswald might have hoped, Woody Harrelson’s dad and he hadn’t crossed paths since he was 7. So, the actor didn’t know about his father’s profession until he happened to hear the news on the radio and inquired to his mother. Imagine his shock when she paused and said something like, “Well, actually, honey, your father was a serial killer.” Yikes. Well into adulthood, Woody Harrelson made an attempt to befriend his father. He visited him and at one point and spent a couple million in attempts to get his father a retrial. He’s quoted telling The Guardian in an interview, “I don’t know he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad. Then I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall.”

A Hitman’s Final Words

Unfortunately, Woody Harrelson’s father never saw that retrial. He died serving his prison sentence in 2007 of a heart attack. Not before he attempted to escape Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1995, which failed and resulted in him being transferred to the Colorado Supermax federal prison, ADX Florence, with the likes of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

In regards to himself, the hitman has said the following in reflective notes amongst his possessions, reading, “God, it’s been a tough way[.] I’m sorry Not for me but for the pain I’ve caused others, both those who’ve loved me and those who’ve loved the people I’ve killed But I’ve never killed a person who was undeserving of it.”

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Moriah Gill About the author:
New Writer at Rare. Stay tuned!
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