Minutes after the fatal shooting of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, Dallas police found a trio of unusually well-dressed tramps in a boxcar behind the “grassy knoll” and marched them single-file through Dealey Plaza.
Photographers snapped several pictures of the passing parade. In the ensuing years, the youngest and tallest of the three was identified by assorted laymen and at least one forensic expert as Charles Voyde Harrelson, a notorious killer-for-hire and father of popular actor Woody Harrelson.
Born in the East Texas community of Lovelady in 1938, Harrelson went to California in his early twenties where he sold encyclopedias door-to-door in the daytime and gambled all night. It was in The Golden State in 1960 that he was convicted of his first felony – armed robbery.
Later that decade, Harrelson became a hit-man for the Mafia in order to pay off his gambling debts. The body count was said to have totaled in the neighborhood of 50 according to informed sources and Harrelson’s own boasts, but a Mafioso speaking from the safety of the “witness protection program” has disputed that number.
“He may have been involved in that many killings, maybe driving the car or something, but he only carried out maybe six killings himself.”
Of those half dozen homicides, three were committed in Texas, and Harrelson stood trial for each. The first was the May 1968 slaying of carpet salesman Alan Harry Berg, brother of a prominent Houston attorney.
Prosecutors tried to convince an Angleton jury that a female accomplice lured the unsuspecting Berg from a lounge and delivered him gift-wrapped to a waiting Harrelson, who knocked him out and stuffed him in the trunk of a car. Driving to a remote location, he shot the helpless victim once in the head and strangled him to death with his bare hands for the $1,500 in blood money paid by a business rival.
If any attorney other than the celebrated Percy Foreman had defended Harrelson, he likely would have languished in prison for the cold-blooded crime. But Foreman, who lost only one client to the electric chair in his entire career, won a jaw-dropping acquittal.
The second Lone Star State slaying happened in November 1968 just six months after the Berg killing. Pete Thomas Scamardo took out a $2,000 contract on the life of Hearne grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr., his partner and a close friend since grade school.
Harrelson was also in business with Scamardo at the time distributing the heroin that the supposedly legitimate businessman smuggled across the border from Mexico. To make up for the loss of a load of the white powder in a Kansas City traffic stop, he took care of Degelia in much the same way he had dispatched Berg.
But both parties were careless and left a clear trail of bread crumbs leading investigators straight to them. Harrelson and his paymaster were tried separately for the murder of Degelia with different yet equally unexpected outcomes due to the fact they retained the same attorney, Percy Foreman.
The verdict in Pete Scamardo’s trial was practically unprecedented. Jurors had no trouble believing he was responsible for the Degelia killing but let him off scot-free with seven years probation.
At Harrelson’s trial, Foreman sprang one of his trademark surprises: a nightclub singer, who swore the defendant was with her the night of murder. Her bombshell testimony created enough doubt in one juror’s mind to deadlock the jury.
The retrial promised to be an instant replay, until the singer heard a Texas Ranger was waiting at the courthouse with a warrant for her arrest for perjury. She fled the country for a Caribbean island with no extradition treaty leaving Harrelson to face the music.
The best Foreman could do for him was a 15-year prison term, not bad considering the prosecutor demanded the death penalty. With generous time off for “good behavior,” the convicted hit-man was out in five.
Harrelson had been back in circulation merely a year, when he shot down U.S. district Judge John H. Wood Jr. in the parking lot outside his San Antonio townhouse on May 29, 1979. The price tag for this historic hit, the first murder of a sitting federal judge in the twentieth century, was a quarter of a million dollars.
Harrelson and his employers, the drug-smuggling Chagra brothers of El Paso, were prosecuted for the second highest profile murder in Texas history. The most severe punishment by far was reserved for the triggerman, who received two life sentences.
Harrelson’s claim that he took part in the Kennedy assassination, which he made while high on cocaine during an armed standoff prior to his capture, renewed public interest in the “tramp photo.” Before his death from natural causes in the Colorado Supermax in 2007, he explained the wild statement was nothing more than “an effort to elongate my life.”
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