I-Team: Nevada Drug Kingpin's Final Words - Jimmy Chagra - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: Nevada Drug Kingpin's Final Words

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Las Vegas writer Jack Sheehan is the only person to ever interview Jimmy Chagra. Las Vegas writer Jack Sheehan is the only person to ever interview Jimmy Chagra.
Federal judge John Wood of Texas, nicknamed Maximum John, was gunned down in front of his home. Federal judge John Wood of Texas, nicknamed Maximum John, was gunned down in front of his home.

A longtime Las Vegas high roller named Jimmy Chagra died in Arizona last week. His name isn't well known today, but years ago -- he was a legend in Las Vegas.

He gambled millions, handed out $10,000 tips to cocktail waitresses and sometimes even paid off the mortgages of casino workers.

The money came from Chagra's marijuana business, an enterprise that sent him to prison and saw him accused of putting a hit on a federal judge.

In his colorful life, Chagra granted only one on-camera interview. George Knapp of the I-Team tells us what Chagra had to say.

"You've got Scarface meets Casino meets Blow. Those three movies."

Author and screenwriter Jack Sheehan knew he had a potential hit on his hands the first time he spoke with Jimmy Chagra. Sheehan found Chagra in Arizona in 2006, still under the witness protection program. The plan was to interview Chagra for a proposed TV show.

That interview -- the only one Chagra ever gave -- inspired a group of Las Vegas businessmen to buy the rights to the Chagra saga. Sheehan has just finished the Chagra screenplay. But Jimmy won't be around to see his tale on the big screen. He died last week. Still, he will live forever on the Las Vegas Strip.

"In his prime, 1970-79, he was the biggest gambler in the city, bar none. He would bring in footlockers filled with $2-$3 million each and store them in the casino cage at Caesars," said Sheehan.

Chagra and his brother Lee would wager huge sums at cards, dice, golf, anything. They lost big, and tipped big. Craps dealers at Caesars gave Chagra a five-foot trophy as the most generous gambler in Las Vegas history. Where did he get all that dough?

"He was the Pablo Escobar of weed. He was bringing in freighter ships of marijuana in the 70's," said Sheehan.

The Chagras operated what probably was the largest pot smuggling operation in the world. He paid off cops, agents, and politicians.

"The prime minister of the Bahamas got 10 from every pound. I had shootouts with the federales. They kidnapped my pilot, had to go down and pay them and they let the plane go filled with pot," said Chagra.

Chagra has his own personal mafia, trusted men he called his stone cold killers. In Nevada, he was the quintessential Vegas kind of guy. He hob-nobbed with celebrities and movie stars, sports figures and gangsters.

But the noose tightened in the late 70's. The Chagras were busted for drugs. Federal judge John Wood of Texas, nicknamed Maximum John for his harsh drug sentences, was to preside.

But on the morning the trial was to begin, the judge was gunned down outside his home. Chagra and his family were charged with the only assassination of a federal judge in U.S. history. The FBI alleged that Chagra had hired Charles Harrelson, a reputed hitman whom he'd met at Binion's Horseshoe.

"Harrelson sat down next to him, struck up a conversation and handed him a card that read Charles Harrelson Professional Hitman. Are you kidding? Then he asked around," said Sheehan.

Harrelson was the real deal, and later became even more famous as the father of actor Woody Harrelson. He was convicted in the Wood murder along with Chagra's wife Liz and brother Joe, but the alleged mastermind was acquitted -- thanks to his lawyer, Oscar Goodman.

"It was second only to the JFK investigation in terms of money spent. It was a big win," said Goodman.

Chagra was sentenced to life on other charges. When asked about the judge, he was cagey.

"I tried to bribe the judge with $5 million or maybe it was $10 million but he wouldn't budge. I would plead guilty if they let my wife out. They said no. I said I did it in order to get parole. I don't know if Charlie Harrelson did it or not," said Chagra.

Sheehan says Chagra gave him an answer -- with silence.

"There is almost no question he orchestrated the whole thing. He offered the $10 million bribe, the judge wouldn't take it. He said, maybe he should have," said Sheehan.

For disclosure purposes, we should point out that George is involved with the independent TV project that led to the Chagra interview. Jack Sheehan says he expects the Chagra movie project to move forward.

Email your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp.

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