Did Woody Harrelson’s Father Kill a Texas Judge in 1979?

The actor once said he didn’t feel Charles Harrelson “was much of a father.”

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Actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles Harrelson, was convicted of murder in the May 1979 killing of U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. in San Antonio, Texas.


In 2021, the internet turned its attention to Woody Harrelson, the famous actor known for his roles in “Cheers” and later “The Hunger Games” trilogy, and a dark chapter of his family history. 

The reemergence of a 2017 San Antonio Express-News story highlighted the “crime of the century” for the city, when Charles Harrelson, the actor’s father, shot and killed U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. on May 29, 1979.

According to the report, “a drug trafficker and flamboyant gambler originally from El Paso, Jamiel ‘Jimmy’ Chagra, paid Harrelson $250,000 to kill Wood because Chagra feared a trial and sentencing by ‘Maximum John.’ Wood earned the moniker for his reputation of giving tough sentences to drug traffickers.”

The report described Charles as “a card gambling felon and accused hit man with ties to organized crime, [who] was the father of actor Woody Harrelson and met Jimmy Chagra in Vegas in 1979 after being paroled in an unrelated murder case.”

Woody Harrelson addressed his relationship with his father in a 1988 interview with People magazine. According to the profile, Charles abandoned his family in 1968. But Woody, who was estranged from his father for parts of his life, grew closer to him after his conviction:

Although the dealer who was accused of hiring him was acquitted on a retrial, Harrelson got life. Woody closely followed the trial of his father, whose birthday he shares, in the papers and calls the conviction “a travesty.” He believes his father was a victim of prejudicial pretrial publicity and points out that the trial judge was one of the murdered man’s pallbearers.

Woody denies that his anger over the proceedings stems from filial affection. “I don’t feel he was much of a father,” he says of the man he knew mainly through infrequent letters. “He took no valid part in my upbringing.” Yet since Charles Harrelson’s imprisonment, father and son have grown closer. Woody visits the prison once a year, and in 1987, when Charles got married by proxy (to a woman he had known on the outside), his son stood in for him. “This might sound odd to say about a convicted felon,” Woody says, “but my father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known. Still, I’m just now gauging whether he merits my loyalty or friendship. I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father.”

History.com added that Woody funded his father’s appeals, even enlisting the help of controversial attorney Alan Dershowitz. Charles died in prison on March 15, 2007, at the age 69, reportedly as a result of heart disease.