Hit man Charles Harrelson, whose death was announced Wednesday, is widely notorious for being convicted of killing a federal judge.
But, to folks in Hidalgo County, the father of actor Woody Harrelson was already well known before the judge’s 1979 killing.
In 1974, Charles Harrelson was convicted in the July 1968 killing of Hearne grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr., who was shot in the head south of McAllen. Pete Scamardo, Degelia’s business partner, was convicted of paying Harrelson $2,000 to kill Degelia so he could collect insurance money, according to a September 1970 article that appeared in The Monitor.
Upon news that Harrelson was found unresponsive in his cell at the Supermax federal prison near Denver on March 15, a retired Texas Ranger assigned to McAllen during the Degelia murder reflected on Harrelson’s death.
“Well, another chapter in my life closed,” said Jack Dean, who helped lead the investigation into Degelia’s death.
Prison officials, who announced Harrelson’s death Wednesday, said the 69-year-old died of natural causes.
Harrelson frequently was the subject of front-page stories in The Monitor throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Woody was 7 when his father was arrested in Degelia’s killing, according to The Associated Press. The Harrelsons never lived in the Rio Grande Valley, but Charles Harrelson came to the area as part of his lethal missions.
He was tried twice in the Degelia killing, because the jury in his first trial deadlocked.
Before that, he was acquitted in the killing of a Houston carpet executive. After that acquittal, Harrelson “shook hands with the jurors and thanked everyone in the courtroom,” according to a Monitor article from that time.
And even when Harrelson was convicted of Degelia’s killing, Harrelson was given 15 years in prison but only served five — much to the consternation of then-Hidalgo County district attorney Oscar McInnis, Dean recalled.
“I don’t think he was happy with the 15 years,” said Norman McInnis, son of the late district attorney. “That wasn’t enough time.”
Asked why Harrelson received 15 years, Dean said, “You’d have to talk to the jury. I have the least idea. It was a very surprising decision.”
The case that ultimately took Charles Harrelson was the May 29, 1979, murder of U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr. — the first federal judge killed in the 20th century, according to the AP.
After the killing, Dean helped lead the FBI to Harrelson after getting an anonymous tip that Harrelson was in San Antonio on the day of the judge’s murder, the former Texas Ranger said.
“That’s what I gave the bureau, and they put it together,” Dean said.
Despite Harrelson’s reputation as a hit man, Dean said he never had a problem with him.
“He had a gambler’s personality,” said Dean, who went on to become U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas. “He could talk to you, and you’d think he’s a nice ol’ boy.”
Norman McInnis, who also met the convicted murderer, called Harrison a “very charming character.”
“He was very personable on the surface,” said McInnis, now a federal public defender in McAllen. “From what I understand, he was a cold-blooded killer. But, he was a good talker.”
Dean said he last saw Harrelson in the late 1990s when he attended a hearing in Denver where Harrelson and his family petitioned for a new trial.
“Nothing changed. They didn’t have a new trial,” Dean said.
At that hearing, Dean said he met Woody, who starred in the hit TV show Cheers in the 1980s and went on to star in the movies White Men Can’t Jump, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Natural Born Killers.
“I saw him, spoke to him, but that was it,” Dean said. “We were introduced by his dad.”
Michael Barnett covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4447. For this and more local stories, visit www.themonitor.com.