Charles Harrelson

Charles Harrelson

Charles Harrelson was born in Huntsville, Texas, in 1939. After leaving school Harrelson moved to California where he eventually became an encyclopedia salesman. He later turned to crime and in 1960 was convicted of armed robbery. He was also believed to be a contract killer.

Jack Anderson, is one of those reporters who believe Harrelson was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In their book he Man on the Grassy Knoll, John R. Craig and Philip A. Rogers claimed that Harrelson and Charles Rogers were the two gunman behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll.

It was also claimed that Harrelson, Rogers and Chauncey Holt were the three tramps arrested in Dealey Plaza on 22nd November, 1963. It was not until 1992 that the Dallas Police Department revealed that the three tramps were Gus Abrams, John F. Gedney and Harold Doyle.

In 1968 Harrelson, the father of the actor, Woody Harrelson, was convicted of the murder of businessman, Sam Degelia, in a contract killing in South Texas. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but with time off for good behavior, he was free in five years.

Photograph of the tramps arrested at the Dealey Plaza. It has been argued that Charles Rogers is on the left and Harrelson is in the middle of the photograph.
Photograph of the tramps arrested at the Dealey Plaza. It has been argued that
Charles Rogers is on the left and Harrelson is in the middle of the photograph.

It is believed that in 1979 Harrelson was paid $250,000 by drug dealers to assassinate John H. Wood. On 29th May, 1979, Wood was shot dead as he left his Alamo Heights townhouse. Wood, known as "Maximum John" for his tough sentences of drug traffickers, was the first federal judge to be murdered in the 20th century.

When he was arrested he confessed to being one of the gunman who killed President John F. Kennedy. He later withdrew this confession but he was eventually convicted of the murder of Wood and sentenced to two life sentences.

In 1988 Harrelson told the producer of The Men Who Killed Kennedy, Nigel Turner, that "on November 22, 1963, at 12.30, I was having lunch with a friend in a restaurant in Houston, Texas." He also told Turner that he would not have accepted such a contract as he knew that if he had, he would have ended up, like Lee Harvey Oswald, being killed by the Mafia.

In October, 1991, Chauncey Holt confessed to John Craig, Phillip Rogers and Gary Shaw about his role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Holt's story was undermined in 1992 when the Dallas Police Department revealed that the three tramps were Gus Abrams, John F. Gedney and Harold Doyle. Ray and Mary LaFontaine carried out their own research into this claim. They traced Doyle and Gedley who confirmed they were two of the tramps in the photograph. Gus Abrams was dead but his sister identified him as the third tramp in the photograph.

Charles Harrelson at a Texas courthouse in 1982
Charles Harrelson at a Texas courthouse in 1982

In 1995 Harrelson attempted to break out of Atlanta Federal Prison. He was recaptured and moved to Florence Administrative Maximum Penitentiary in Colorado. Woody Harrelson attempted to have his father's conviction overturned and secure a new trial.

Charles Harrelson died of a heart attack on 15th March, 2007.

Primary Sources

(1) Chauncey Holt was interviewed by John Craig, Phillip Rogers and Gary Shaw for Newsweek magazine (19th October, 1991)

At the time of the shooting, the moment the shots were fired, we knew something went awry. We didn't know why, but from the screaming and carrying on we knew that there had been one hell of a bad incident. At the time, what went through our minds was, "Hey, we had gotten ourselves into something that is way over our heads." So I scooted under the train, went under to the other side, encountered Harrelson and Montoya, we searched out the car, which was not too far from the engine, climbed in it, closed the door and sat there in silence, while I monitored the radio and listened to what was going on.

We were in the railroad car by 12:31-12:32, almost immediately... as soon as the shooting started, and there was pandemonium and people were running all over the place. When actually, we look back on it, we could of easily of lost ourselves in all of this stuff. We could have gotten right up to the grassy knoll and thrown ourselves on the ground, like everybody else was, and started screaming, and that would have been the end of it.

We were in the box car a long time. Actually we heard a lot of transmissions. I estimated that it was almost 2 o'clock, although my watch was still on Arizona time. I had a bad habit of not changing my watch. So I think we stayed in there till practically 2 o'clock. We were still in there during the time when we heard the transmissions involving Tippit and back and forth. We heard a lot of other communications. We heard the call than an officer had been dying. I am told and I believe it was somewhere around 1:15 when we heard about the incident at the Texas theater, although we didn't know what happened.

So I thought it was possibly 2 o'clock before the train actually started to move. We started to move, backing down the tracks a little ways. We thought it was going to move, then we starts to backup. I thought they were going to switch us onto another track.

Then suddenly the thing stopped. They opened the door and there was a whole bunch of police officers with shotguns and everything else. We saw, the box car was not a fully loaded box car, but in this box car was ammunition, unusual ammunition. Defcord?, crates that looked like they were possibly claymore mines, drums marked : MUD, which seemed like drilling mud, which was unusual to be with the rest of this material. Which I assumed to be C-4 or some plastic explosives.

The officer too us out, we tried to identify ourselves. We said, "Hey, we're federal agents working on this thing," and they said, "Come with us." So we strolled along and actually we went back, we came out of the yard, we went by the Texas Depository building, across the street. I would say Harrelson and I were sort of dragging along, but Montoya, he was really digging out. He was actually right up behind the lead officer. He turned us over to two officers, the officer in charge, we later learned was Harkness.

In the photos, the individual in front is the individual I knew as Richard Montoya (Charles Rogers). The individual behind him I knew as Charles Harrelson. I had reason to believe that who he actually was, even though I didn't know him that well. I 'm confident that's who it was. And I'm the gentleman in the back, carrying the bag with the radio in it.

We were not placed under arrest. We were taken across, and someone interviewed us momentarily, and turned us over to someone else. A person I later learned was Captain Fritz, he said not two or three words to us. He said he was turning us over to the FBI. His name was Gordon Shanklin.

He asked us who were were, what we were doing there. Just about this time, while were were doing this, there was a lot of confusion, a lot of pandemonium, and actually a lot of, I would term jubilation on the part of all of the police officers in there, especially Gordon Shanklin, which led us to believe that our release was because of something that happened. Although they had said it on a number of occasions, someone else was arrested. They had caught someone in the Dal Tex building. I heard someone say, "We got one of them." But then when the matter came in that they had indicated they had got the individual that had killed the cop in Oakcliff, all at once it seemed to me, even what I considered prematurely, they indicated they had the guy that shot the president too. And at that time the level of attention on us... they had some other people they had detained and looked like they were going to arrest, including Braden.

Jim Braden was there. I didn't recognize him at first, because he had a hat on with some kind of Texas style hat band on it, and I didn't know him all that well, if you know what I mean. But I knew that I recognized him like I recognize you.

But once we got in there, and these events come off because they happened almost at the time we arrived there. Then the attention shifted a lot at once, from us to Oswald, who turned out to be Oswald. I assumed that it was their normal enthusiasm about having captured a cop killer, is what I thought. Because they treat cop killers a hell of a lot different than they treat killers of anyone else. Not the president of course. But at that point, Gorden Shanklin... we hadn't been in there too long. We were there a little while. And all this time... then who we are came up, then they were very careless. We were strolling around, people were coming around. They didn't treat us like dangerous suspects. They didn't handcuff us. Plus they didn't search us, and we were heavily armed.

We were taken to the Sheriff's Department, right there on Dealey Plaza. Didn't walk far. We didn't make a statement. Weren't fingerprinted. Weren't taken to the jail (where) I assume we would have been taken. Then Gordon Shanklin said, "You're free to go."

(2) House Select Committee on Assassinations (1979)

All three men are shabbily dressed, befitting their apparent status as vagrants. Tramp A, however, is the better attired, wearing well-fitting jeans and a tweed-like sports jacket, although this, judged by 1963 styles, was several years out of date. Tramp B is wearing ill-fitting slacks and a double-breasted suit coat. Tramp C, from his battered fedora to his won-out shoes, has managed to achieve a sartorial effect similar to what one would expect had he been fired from a cannon through a Salvation Army thrift shop. While such clothing might be a disguise, their footwear seems consistent with their classification as vagrants. All three men are shod in worn, low-cut oxfords that appear to be leather-soled. Tramp C's shoes seem to be several sizes too large for him.

(3) James H. Fetzer, Assassination Science and the Language of Proof, included in Assassination Science (1998)

Chauncey M. Holt, for example, has reported that he was a counterfeiter who, while working as a contract agent for the CIA, brought fifteen sets of forged Secret Service credentials to Dealey Plaza for use by persons in the immediate vicinity (KOGO AM-Radio, San Diego, 22 November 1995). He has told me that he arrived there in the company of Charles Harrelson, father of Woody, who was a notorious hit man for the Mob. Harrelson once said that he killed Kennedy, later retracting it and claiming that he was out of his mind when he said it and the very fact that he said it showed as much. He is serving a life-sentence for the assassination of a federal judge with a high-powered rifle, a very similar crime.

(4) John McAdams, The Three Tramps (2002)

The next big break in the case came when the Dallas City Council voted to release all city records having to do with the assassination. Journalist Mary La Fontaine, who was looking through the recently released records, happened to look at a list of records released earlier in 1989. There she found the arrest records that showed the tramps to be: Harold Doyle, John Forester Gedney, Gus W. Abrams

Were these fellows in fact the three tramps? Ray and Mary LaFontaine, working for the tabloid TV program "A Current Affair," set out to find Harold Doyle, whose address was listed on the arrest record as Red Jacket, West Virginia. The trail led from West Virginia to Amarillo, Texas, where the LaFontaines found one of Doyle's former neighbors who remembered him talking about his arrest in Dallas. Doyle was finally located in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He told his story on camera, and was also questioned by the FBI.

The FBI and private researchers sought the other two tramps. Gedney was located in Melbourne, Florida, serving as a municipal officer, a respected member of the community who had not spoken about former life as a vagabond until interviewed by researcher Billy Cox, and by the FBI. Both Doyle and Gedney told the same story of spending the night before the assassination at a rescue mission. According to Oliver Revell of the Dallas FBI office:

Both commented that they had gotten fresh clothes, showered, shaved and had a meal. They headed back to the railroad yard when they heard all the commotion and sirens and everything, and they asked what happened. They were told the president had been shot.

Abrams, the oldest of the tramps, was deceased. But researcher Kenneth Formet interviewed his sister, with whom he had lived the last 15 years of his life. She remembered his vagabond days, saying "he was always on the go hopping trains and drinking wine." When shown a picture of the Dealey Plaza tramps she responded "Yep, that's my Bill!"

(5) Jake Rollow, El Paso Times (21st March, 2007)

Charles Voyde Harrelson - the killer-for-hire who prompted the biggest FBI investigation ever to probe El Paso by assassinating a federal judge - died last week at a federal prison in Colorado, the San Antonio Express-News reported this morning.

Harrelson, 69, who was the father of actor Woody Harrelson, apparently died of a heart attack in his sleep on March 14 in a maximum security facility, according to the Express-News story.

Charles Harrelson had been serving a life sentence for killing U.S. District Judge John H. Wood in San Antonio in 1979, who was to preside over the trial of Jamiel "Jimmy" Chagra.

The Chagras were a prominent family in El Paso. According to prosecutors, some members of the family were also involved in drug smuggling.

By killing Wood, Charles Harrelson triggered what FBI spokesman Art Werge later called "the largest manhunt ever to focus on El Paso."

Wood was the first federal judge assassinated in the 20th century and Werge said it was the FBI's largest manhunt prior to the 1995 Oklahoma City

(6) John Harlow, Sunday Times (8th April, 2007)

THE bloody family secrets of Woody Harrelson, the Hollywood actor, are to be revealed in a prison memoir written by his father, a professional hitman.

Charles “Chuck” Harrelson, who died in a Colorado maximum security jail last month, left a bundle of papers to his three sons with a plea to clear him of murdering a judge. But he admits in the memoir that he was involved in dozens of killings stretching back to the early 1960s.

Woody Harrelson, who played a psychopath in Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers, has not yet decided what to do with the papers, although he has already challenged the final conviction that landed his father in a “supermax” high-security prison.

His father, who wanted his life story to be published, first went to prison when Woody was seven and was jailed for life when his son was at college, but said he always hoped that one day they would have a “straight, no bull” talk about his past.

Chuck Harrelson’s death at 69 following heart trouble meant that conversation never took place. However, the papers are expected to answer questions posed both by his family and by the relatives of his many supposed victims.

Prosecutors said Harrelson, a violent thief and killer for hire in his twenties, was unusual because he used a sniper rifle rather than a handgun. “Charles Harrelson damaged everyone he came in contact with,” said the prosecutor at his last trial.

Harrelson even boasted — probably to impress potential employers — that he had shot President John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. He claimed to have been one of three men dressed as tramps on the grassy knoll close to the Kennedy cavalcade and said that Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed assassin, was too far away from the president to get a clear shot.

If the grassy knoll story was a self-promoting fabrication, it seems to have worked. In 1979 he was allegedly paid $250,000 to shoot a Texas judge preparing to sentence a drug dealer. The plot backfired. The judge died but the dealer was arrested and claimed to have hired Harrelson, who received two life sentences.

In 2003 the dealer recanted, saying someone else had shot the judge. Woody Harrelson stepped up pressure for a retrial, but his father died before lawyers could get him out of jail. “My father was no saint, but a lot of sources led me to believe it was not a fair trial,” he said recently.

Woody Harrelson, 45, who rose to fame as the slow, sweet-natured barman Woody Boyd in the TV comedy Cheers, has generated more recent headlines with political stunts. He scaled the Golden Gate bridge to unveil an antilogging banner and, as a vegan, has protested against factory farming.

He will appear next in a film called Battle in Seattle, set amid violent protests against the World Trade Organisation summit in 1999. “It’s to make up for not being there myself,” he joked.

Harrelson has had his own misadventures. He once admitted to “sex addiction” and in the early 1980s was fined after dancing in traffic and jumping out of a moving police van. He remains unsure how his life was influenced by his father’s criminal career.

“I suspect it’s a mixed influence — it made me think outlaw, but I would not want to hurt anyone,” he said.

Chuck Harrelson revealed his literary ambitions to Kenny Gallo, a convicted mafia “associate” in the FBI witness protection programme. “He wrote to me saying he was writing the book that exposed all the lies written about him over the years,” Gallo said.

He denied that Harrelson had killed 50 people: “He may have been involved in that many killings, maybe driving the car or something, but he only carried out maybe six killings himself.”

America no longer produced assassins like Harrelson, he added. “Today, you want someone killed, you call in a Russian or an Israeli. I don’t know how Woody feels about his father, but Harrelson was probably the last of a killing breed.”