Where’s The Money? The Saga of Jimmy Chagra and I
by Richard Baron
Posted on August 8, 2008
Jimmy Chagra was three years older than I and he was a senior at El Paso High when I was a freshman. I remember once seeing him punch out a guy in the hall by the library, and another time I saw him beat the crap out of a skinny dude in a Burgess letter jacket in the parking lot of the YMCA. I gave a wide berth to most of the seniors but I tried to stay out of Jimmy Chagra’s sight altogether.
After I got out of high school and left El Paso, first for Austin and then New York City, I would hear gossip throughout the 70's that a lot of El Pasoans – I forget exactly who now – had involved themselves in the smuggling and distribution of contraband from Mexico. Everyone was doing it. When I would visit town I would run into old acquaintances who had turned into cosmic cowboys, bejewelled in turquoise, snakeskin boots and runny noses, and they would laugh as they told me that they were in the import business, nudge nudge wink wink, and Jimmy Chagra’s name often came up in this context, usually as the head honcho.
My parents lived in Mission Hills on Santa Anita just across the street from Jimmy Chagra’s parents and they would tell me how they would come home from dinner sometimes and find the whole street blocked off by the FBI doing a search of their neighbors’ home. My parent’s assured me that Jimmy Chagra’s mom and dad were the nicest people you would ever meet, and they didn’t want to know what was going on, it wasn’t any of their business.
Naturally I heard about the murder of Jimmy Chagra’s older brother Lee and later I heard about Jimmy Chagra being indicted for smuggling. I heard about the assassination of Judge Maximum John Wood, and how Jimmy Chagra was a person of interest, and I heard that he was given a lengthy sentence, if not for murder then at least for ongoing criminal activity.
When I first moved back to El Paso in the early 80's, I remember reading Gary Cartwright’s book Dirty Dealing and I remember being fascinated by transcripts published in a now-defunct local magazine of embarrassing, wire-tapped conversations held in Jimmy Chagra’s new Leavenworth headquarters.
After that Jimmy Chagra kind of receded from mind as people in the pen tend to do, although occasionally his name would pop up like other famous Pachucos – Debbie Reynolds, Gene Rodenberry, The Night Stalker – but he certainly commanded less and less attention as the years rolled on.
On and off throughout the first five years of the current millennium I was writing profiles of El Paso personalities – mostly artists, writers and musicians – for Stanton Street Weekly and Newspaper Tree, and just about the time I had come to feel it had run its course I received a phone call from a woman with a deep East Texas twang who told me that she was the sister of Jimmy Chagra’s deceased first wife, and he had been reading my profiles on-line in prison. He liked them, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing his authorized biography in exchange for a percentage of the book, movie, television and action-puppet rights. He was out on parole, after 23 years, and was living under an assumed name in the witness protection program in greater metro Phoenix, and if I was interested I would have to travel there to discuss the details of a deal with him. One of the conditions of his parole was that he couldn’t go to El Paso.
After recovering from the shock of discovering that Jimmy Chagra was such an astute judge of literary talent, I was intrigued and readily consented to meet.
There was a bit of old-man decrepitude to his carriage, but he had a prison yard body, lean and hard. He was tall, with a strong mustache and a rich Arizona tan. He chain smoked Marlboro’s, just like a guy would in the old days, and his drink of choice was Seven-and-Seven. He spoke in a hearty baritone and he looked you hard in the eye. His own eyes shined as he talked of his life and his hopes for the fame and the fortune – mostly the fortune – that would rain down upon us as together we would tell the details of his exploits and previously undisclosed facts about the case the Feds called “The Crime of the Century.”
He had a bona fide charisma and there was an undeniable appeal to the project but there was something else about him, something indefinable, something that told me this man is dangerous, this man is delusional, this man’s insane.
He wasn’t that frightening however because it was clear that he was only a shadow of who he used to be. He didn’t have a crew to carry out his nefarious deeds for him any longer and he seemed to be primarily motivated, aside from his lust for wealth, to never be sent to the big house again. He told me that he did not wish to die inside. He was a man in check but still there was a feral narcissism about him that made me wary.
He told me that he would give me so many shares to the rights to his life in exchange for writing it up but only if I bought more of the rights in exchange for some cash up front to get him through the time it would take to write the book and sell it.
That night I told a cousin who lives in New York but who also remembered Jimmy Chagra from school-days of the offer. He told a friend of his who was an editor at Simon & Schuster and she passed it along to an agent and the next day the agent called me. After grilling me about the saga of Jimmy Chagra he told me he could put together a book/movie package of this kind of story no sweat. It was "Blow" meets "Macbeth" he said.
I got back to Jimmy Chagra and we struck a deal. I hired a lawyer to write up a contract and upon our signing I gave Jimmy Chagra a tidy chunk of change.
At the advice of the agent I began work on a summary of the story – something he could shop around to publishers and producers and also something for me to wrap my own head around. I re-read Dirty Dealing and I taped 4-5 hours of conversations with Jimmy Chagra covering a general overview of his life from which I wrote the summation. Jimmy Chagra wanted to know if we were almost finished yet and when would he get an advance. “Writing a big long book is going to take some time and we’ve hardly just begun” I told him to his frowning face.
I decided to write the book chronologically and I taped 10 or 12 hours of his early years as young punk hanging around El Paso, his very first smuggles, and how his business developed to the point where he outgrew Mexico as a source of pot and moved his operation to Colombia. Finally, I sat at my pc in earnest to start the solitary chore of organizing and writing a book. He had told me rough and tumble tales of daring-do and it was all really fun stuff to write. I spent whole days alone writing stories about meetings with shady men in Mexico and the thrill of flying across the border with a planeful of weed. I wrote about shootouts with Federales and plane wrecks, about deals gone bad, kidnapings and chases. Women, drugs, gambling, exorbitant amounts of cash – what could be more fun while all alone in my condo?
To make things even better, the agent had enkindled the interest of a high-powered editor who specialized in book/movie packages. We all started to get excited, and that’s when the trouble began – a certain Jimmy Chagra kind of trouble.
Jimmy Chagra needed more money and he needed it now.
“When do I get my money, Baron?” was a question I began hearing with increasing frequency.
I kept explaining that we were still closer to the beginning of the project than the end and the money usually came closer to the end, but Jimmy Chagra needed money now. He offered to sell me a larger share of the rights at a discount but I felt I already owned quite enough of this good thing so I deferred and he became angry. I asked him what happened to all the money I had given him just a few months earlier and he told me it was gone. He had had bills and debts to pay. I suggested he get a job until payday – certainly there was a Lebanese owned rug business somewhere in Phoenix that would love the notoriety of having Jimmy Chagra work the floor I said – and he became enraged. How dare I think he should have to work. He was Jimmy Chagra god damn it, he once commandeered an army of drug smugglers, he was once a multi multi millionaire, he conspired to have a federal judge slain for god’s sake, why should he have to work?
I called the agent and tried to get a time-line about when we could get some moolah to The Man but he said we were going to need a whole lot more down on paper before we could expect anything like that. The more of a finished product we had the more we get for it he explained. I asked him if maybe he could front Jimmy Chagra some money until then and he said ha ha ha ha.
I finished writing the early chapters and I was getting ready to return to Mesa for the next round of interviews but all he’d talk about with me was money. “I’m not doing any more interviews until I get more money,” Jimmy Chagra finally said.
I had been making great progress – it had only been a few months since he’d first contacted me and I had an outline for the whole book, written the opening chapters and secured a Jewish New York agent who had enticed the interest of a big-time publisher/producer. It was all going so smoothly, I really just wanted to proceed, and if I was going to have to lay out a little more cash in order to get to the payoff I was prepared to do so.
I called Jimmy Chagra back and told him that if he was reasonable I would help him get by for the next few months until we made the big sale and he was exalted. I was his very best friend again. He explained to me what money he had, what money his wife had coming in and how much his bills were each month. We figured if he got so much a month – not an unreasonable amount – for the next five months he’d be able to squeeze by and he’d pay me back when proceeds from the project materialized. It was either lend him this cash – submit to this extortion – or give up my big shot at a book and screenplay and I agreed. The very next day I sent him a check for the first month of our new arrangement and I began preparing for the trip to Mesa.
A few days later he called. “Thanks for the check,” Jimmy Chagra said, “but listen, bring the rest of the money in cash with you, okay?”
“What do you mean, the rest of the money,” I asked, and he said, “You know, the rest of the money you owe me. I need it now.”
I asked him if he had lost the money I sent him gambling and he told me it was none of my business. I told him that I had sent him the money to pay his bills, not for him to lose at the casinos, and he said it was his money and he could do whatever he wanted with it. “Actually it’s my money,” I said, and he said that actually it wasn’t because I had given it to him, and he needed the rest of it now. “You’re not going to dole it out me like I’m a child on an allowance,” he said.
I told him I wasn’t giving him money to gamble with and he told me I would if I was a man of my word. I told him it was he who wasn’t keeping his and then things went downhill. Who did I think I was to talk to him like that? I was just a selfish son-of-a-bitch and a lying bastard who didn’t keep his word. Attempts to defend myself served only to intensify the obscenity of my being – I was a piece of shit, I was a fucking asshole. Other than responding with similar repartee, I couldn’t think of a retort so I reiterated I wasn’t sending him more money and I hung up. That was at about 9pm; I was in El Paso and he was in Mesa, about a seven hour drive between us. Seven o’clock the next morning I awoke to banging on the door and Jimmy Chagra’s ominous baritone – “I know you’re in there, Baron, open the door.”
I’m not ashamed to admit I was shaken. Jimmy Chagra had determined I was a fucking asshole and now he was banging on my door. I told him I wasn’t alone and that I wouldn’t let him in. After a moment’s pause and in a quieter voice he told me that we needed to work this out, we needed to talk. I didn’t want to be alone with him so I told him I’d meet him at the Village Inn in a half an hour, and I watched from the window to make sure he drove off.
I need to take some protection with me I thought and I wasn’t thinking about rubbers. I didn’t have a gun and my steak knives were just flimsy little things from K-Mart. I had a butcher knife but I couldn’t walk around with a butcher knife. I found a sharp pair of scissors, decided they’d have to do and put them in my back pocket. I imagined getting in a fight and killing Jimmy Chagra with a pair of scissors outside the Village Inn. Yeah, right.
When I got to the restaurant he was in a booth by the window and I sat across from him. He said we had to make amends and I concurred. For an instance a small hope flickered that we actually might but then Jimmy Chagra said that what I needed to do was give him the rest of his money that day and then we’d be okay again and could proceed. I told him that was not acceptable and he said well then that was it, he couldn’t work with me if I didn’t give him his money and he would to sell the rights to his life to someone else. “You can’t do that,” I said, “we have a contract.” He asked me what good did I think that would do me and I replied I’d sue him and anybody he put out a book or film with.
He leaned forward and quietly he said, “You don’t know who you’re messing with, Baron.”
The silence between us was palpable for a second or two and then he quickly pulled back from the implied threat. Dude was on parole, we both knew he shouldn’t be talking trash like that. “You threatened to sue me – you and I are done,” he said, “we’re not working together no more,” and he turned his body away from mine and looked out the window. The truth of his statement sunk in. We weren’t going to come back from this and have the kind of friendly discourse necessary to write a book together like we’d had. “We’ve put a lot of time into this already, Jim,” I said but he just stared into the distance. I sat there for a minute but when I realized he wasn’t going to turn back or respond to me, that I had been dismissed, I got up and left the Village Inn. That was the last time I saw Jimmy Chagra but it wasn’t the end of our affair.
I went back home and copied all the files to disks and gathered up the other physical detritus of my adventure in Jimmy Chagra World – the tapes I had made, the printouts of the transcripts, the outlines, summaries and text I had written – and I put it in a plastic bag, wrapped it shut with tape and threw it on a shelf in a closet. Then I laid on my couch and stared at the ceiling for a couple of days. I thought about all the time and money I had wasted and I wondered what the hell I was going to do now.
One thing I thought I would have to do was spend the rest of my life googling Jimmy Chagra every day to see if anyone else published a book or produced a screenplay about him so I could sue them. Wasn’t that an exciting future to look forward to?
After a few days, before I had even begun to snap out of my funk, the phone rang and it was none other than Jesus Christ. “I found someone I can work with,” he said, “and he’ll buy you out.” I realized that whoever he found was certainly giving him more money as well and I begrudgingly, silently acknowledged respect for him that he could be so constantly on the hustle and get away with it.
The new chronicler was to be a Las Vegas columnist who also produced documentaries, mostly about Vegas. After minimal negotiation with his lawyer I agreed to relinquish all rights to the research and writing I had done in exchange for remuneration considerably less than I had once imagined I would make off the life of Jimmy Chagra, but it was a profit and it was more than I had ever made from my writing before – certainly more than I had ever made writing for Newspaper Tree. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I decided I’d better grab it while I could and I arranged to travel to Vegas to hand over the goods, sign the contract and get the dough.
But what if it was a set-up? What if Jimmy Chagra had arranged with some of his old gangster buddies to have me rubbed out? What if I were to end up buried under the hot desert sand outside Las Vegas alongside countless other saps who had crossed the big boys? Oh, God! Should I take my scissors to Las Vegas with me?
I flew to Vegas with the fruits of my labors in hand and I checked into the Hilton, just off The Strip. I was genuinely paranoid but the exchange with the lawyer went seamlessly and I deposited the check in my bank. When I got back to the hotel I took a dip in the pool and got a massage – a legit one – from a Filipino lady at the hotel spa. After a filling dinner at the all-you-can-eat shrimp and prime rib buffet I went into the hotel bar and met a beautiful, young, high-class hooker and took her to my room. That was the first time I ever did that – well, in the United States – and it was quite alright. Indeed, verily so. The next morning I returned to El Paso.
I felt completely adrift. The previous five months of my life had been consumed by Jimmy Chagra and I missed working on the project. I had a few small jobs lined up – some photo-shoots, a short article for a local magazine – but it was trivial in content and scope compared to the drama of Jimmy Chagra’s life. I decided that now was a good time to make a break and change my life. I wanted to get back to working on my personal photography but I had too many distractions, too much baggage in El Paso and all anyone there ever wanted to talk to me about was Jimmy Chagra, their notorious native son. I decided it was time to blow that dump and within just a few months I had moved to Albuquerque, not because I had any burning desire to live in Albuquerque, but just to get out of El Paso, and the Duke City seemed like an easy move to make. Eventually I moved even further up the road to Santa Fe and as I had hoped I’ve become very involved in my art. I stopped spending any time at all thinking about Jimmy Chagra.
Just a few weeks ago, however, I was in my car with a friend when I got a call from a reporter from The El Paso Times. He had heard a rumor that Jimmy Chagra was dead and he wanted to know if I could confirm that. I told him I wouldn’t know. He said he heard I was writing a book about him and did I wish to comment. No, I didn’t, I didn’t wish to comment and I explained that our literary brush up had been brief and unsuccessful, I wasn’t in touch with him anymore and I had nothing to say. He asked if I knew of anyone he might talk to for more information, so in hopes of getting rid of him I told him about the writer in Vegas and under what name and where the deceased had been living and that he could probably track down his most recent wife there.
I told my friend what the phone call had been about and how I avoided really saying anything because I didn’t want to get involved and my friend said, “You said a lot.”
Sure enough, the reporter quoted me as the authority on the famous dead man’s assumed name and whereabouts, and he repeated in all of five words the story of my failed collaboration with him. It got picked by the AP and the story ran in what seemed like every paper in the country that’s still publishing. It was in The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Jacksonville Whatever. Newspaper writers will screw you every time, the lousy bastards.
And then my phone started ringing and the emails started pouring in. Everyone wanted to talk with me about Jimmy Chagra. What did I think about Jimmy Chagra? What did I think about his death? Well, I didn’t have any thoughts about Jimmy Chagra, or about his death, and I didn’t know what to say. I really didn’t care. I just want to work on my photographs, so leave me the hell alone about Jimmy Chagra already, or I’ll get out my scissors, because you don’t know who you’re messing with, man.
August 5, 2008
Addendum – The man who purchased the rights to Chagra’s life from Richard Baron is Jack Sheehan. He has completed a screenplay titled “Do A Nickel” that is now being shopped around Hollywood. He may be contacted at Jshee32110@aol.com .
Richard Baron is a pachuco-in-exile and formerly a frequent contributor to Newspaper Tree. He currently resides in Santa Fe where he is concentrating on his photography. He may be contacted at email@example.com and his photographs may be viewed at www.richardbaron.com .
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