The following article includes mentions of murder and domestic violence.
Woody Harrelson rose to fame playing loveable barkeep Woody Boyd on “Cheers,” appearing in exactly 200 episodes of the hit sitcom between 1985 and 1993. He was a big star by the time NBC called time on the show, but what not many people knew about the affable actor back then was that his father was a convicted contract killer.
The shocking crimes of Charles Voyde Harrelson were brought into fresh focus in 2020 with the release of true crime podcast “Son of a Hitman,” during which journalist and host Jason Cavanagh spoke directly to those who had known him. According to lawyer Ray Jahn, Woody’s old man was an “outright psychopath” who was “very personable” with members of the opposite sex. “We had more witnesses that slept with him than we could shake a stick at,” he said (via the Daily Mail).
A rancher’s son from the sleepy town of Lovelady, Texas, Charles served in the Navy until 1959, when he relocated to Los Angeles with his first wife, Dianne (mother to Woody and his two brothers, Jordan and Brett Harrelson), whom he had met on a flight and married two weeks later, per Chron. He started selling encyclopedias for a living, but he didn’t stay honest for long. Woody Harrelson’s dad progressed from armed robber to professional triggerman in the years that followed, and when all was said and done, he was rumored to have been behind as many as 20 killings. This is his crazy real-life story.
Charles Harrelson snitched his way out of a sentence for armed robbery
He was apparently born with the gift of gab, but trying to sell strangers on encyclopedias clearly wasn’t Charles Harrelson’s kind of gig. Before long, the smooth-talking Texan had turned to a life of crime to make a quick buck instead. At the age of 22, he was found guilty of armed robbery, but managed to avoid jail time by coming to a deal with authorities. “He became what he called a ‘snitch,'” the Houston Chronicle noted. “He allowed police to record his conversations with an accused killer. As a reward, he received five years’ probation, which was later expunged from his record.”
When he sat down for an interview with The Guardian in 2012, Woody Harrelson revealed that he remembers his dad being in and out of custody right up until he left his mother. “I think they separated when I was seven,” he told the paper. “But he was gone a lot before that, in prison. Away and back. Away and back. It wasn’t like he was there all the time prior to that.”
This wasn’t the first time that the actor had publicly criticized his father for not being around when he was growing up. Speaking to People magazine (via the Los Angeles Times) during the height of his “Cheers” fame, Woody admitted that his criminal dad wasn’t “much of a father” to him at all, adding: “He took no valid part in my upbringing.”
Woody Harrelson's dad became a professional gambler
Charles Harrelson moved the family back to Texas when his trouble-filled time in California came to an end. They had re-settled in Houston when he decided to split on them, leaving Woody Harrelson’s mom “to support the family on her meagre salary as a legal secretary,” the Daily Mail reports. Charles apparently made little effort to keep in touch with his kids from that point forward, and by 1965, he had taken a second wife, Betty. He worked as a dental equipment repairman and encyclopedia salesman to bring in some cash at the time, but his real income came from cards — Charles considered himself a professional gambler.
He reportedly began perfecting his gambling skills when he was as young as 12, so it’s safe to say he was pretty handy at the poker table by the time he reached adulthood. “I could put any hand you want at any position you want it, by simply opening up a new deck of cards and shuffling them,” he once boasted (via The Telegraph). Charles got himself a side gig collecting debt from losing players who had missed their deadlines, and it wasn’t long before the self-proclaimed “expert card mechanic” started organizing his own high stakes games — which, according to the Daily Mail, were often rigged.
Per the tabloid, Charles reportedly sought out “deep-walleted players” for his poker nights and “cheated” them out of small fortunes without them even knowing they’d been had.
Getting away with murder?
When he was interviewed from his prison cell years after leaving Woody Harrelson and his family behind, Charles Harrelson denied being a hitman, insisting that he was just a simple “card player” who had been wrongly jailed. However, reports suggest that he actually began working as a contract killer around the time he started operating his own poker table, and at some point had left professional gambling behind for professional killing. Charles apparently even went as far as getting his own business cards printed.
“He used to carry a card that said ‘Have gun will travel’ and another card that said ‘Hit man,'” David Berg, who believes that his brother was murdered by Woody Harrelson’s dad for $1,500, claimed to Inside Edition. Carpet salesman Alan Berg disappeared in 1968 after a mysterious woman lured him to a Houston bar called the Brass Jar. According to his brother, hitman Charles Harrelson was there waiting for him and reportedly forced him into a car at gunpoint. “Charles Harrelson took Alan to a deserted road and shot him through the temple and when Alan didn’t die, he strangled him to death,'” David Berg added to Inside Edition.
The woman that tricked Alan Berg was reportedly Charles’ then-girlfriend, Sandra Sue Attaway, per Berg’s memoir, “Run, Brother, Run.” She witnessed the murder, he says, but as his “common-law wife,” she wasn’t able to testify. “The jury had to disregard all of her testimony,” he told Inside Edition. “Without her testimony there wasn’t much of a case.”
Charles Harrelson was reportedly in cahoots with his PI brother
Interestingly, career criminal Charles Harrelson came from a family of lawmen. He reportedly had a prison warden for an uncle, and his brothers (he was the youngest of six children) were all on the same side of the divide — one became a polygraph technician, another went on to work for the FBI, and one became a private investigator. “I don’t know where they went wrong, but I don’t hold it against them,” Charles once jokingly said (via the Daily Mail).
In what the Houston Chronicle described as “a plot twist too unbelievable for a pulp novel,” his PI brother, Claude Harrelson, was actually hired by Alan Berg’s dad to hunt for his killer, unaware that he was paying said killer’s brother. “Magically, within three days, Claude said your son has been murdered,” Alan’s brother, David Berg, who began practicing law the year his sibling was murdered, told NPR. “He demanded $3,000 for information leading to Alan’s remains… As it turns out, he not only murdered my brother, did Charles, but combined with Claude and one other man who was involved, to shake Dad down for the reward.”
According to his book, “Run, Brother, Run,” David Berg and his family grew suspicious when they received a “second muffled phone call (possibly from Charles himself)” informing them that the price for the info was now $10,000. When the family started urging Claude to share his sources with the police, the brothers reportedly “abandoned the shakedown,” he wrote.
Woody Harrelson's dad killed a grain dealer to make up for lost heroin
According to David Berg’s book, “Run, Brother, Run,” Charles Harrelson had “p***ed away the money he earned by murdering Alan” in a matter of days. He apparently needed a fresh injection of cash, so when an associate named Pete Scamardo came to him with a proposition that involved moving some heroin, he was all ears. Calls were made and buyers were arranged, but, unfortunately for Harrelson, he was pulled over by cops before he could sell any of the drugs. He reportedly managed to dispose of the product down a nearby drain, but he was taken in on federal firearms charges regardless. Scamardo posted bail, though that was far from the end of it. “With the heroin lost, Harrelson owed Scamardo a favor,” Berg wrote.
Scamardo reportedly told Harrelson that his debt would be paid if he agreed to take out Sam Degelia Jr., his longtime friend and business partner. He wanted his old pal dead for the insurance money he was set to benefit from, which even Harrelson (who’s said to have pocketed $2,000 for the hit) found rather messed up: “Isn’t it hell when your best friend kills you to collect the insurance?” he’s said to have asked his accomplice in the murder, a man named Jerry Watkins, over a beer.
Perhaps he felt invincible after apparently getting away with murder once already, but he wasn’t as lucky this time — Harrelson received a 15-year sentence for the hit in 1973.
He subjected Sandra Sue Attaway to some horrendous abuse
In his own words (via Inside Edition), Charles Harrelson was “not the nicest person you would ever meet as far as the mores of Christianity,” and one person who experienced his cruelty first hand was Sandra Sue Attaway. She’s been painted as the Bonnie to his Clyde at times, but Attaway has claimed to have been just another victim of the magnetic and dangerous Harrelson. According to David Berg’s “Run, Brother, Run,” Attaway once alleged that her common-law husband subjected her to horrific physical abuse during their dark days together. She was apparently given a particularly bad beating after Harrelson won big in the casino and she asked for a share.
“This made him extremely angry and he knocked me down in the casino and grabbed me by the neck and yanked me to the car and beat me outside, then threw me in the car and beat me around the head with his gun,” Attaway said, per Berg’s book. “I was very weak and bleeding from the nose and the head and he kept hitting me with his hand as he drove and telling me that he was going to kill me that night and dump me out in the desert.” She stole his car the following day and returned to her family while she recovered, both psychically and mentally.
According to Berg, Attaway reportedly ended up going back to Houston and hooking up with Dennis Weadock, one of Harrelson’s poker buddies.
If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224. You can also find more information, resources, and support at www.thehotline.org.
Charles Harrelson and the slaying of Judge John Wood
Charles Harrelson only ended up serving five of the 15 years he was sentenced to for the murder of grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr., having been released early for “good behavior,” per The Guardian. The next time he wound up in court accused of a hit, there would be no leniency whatsoever — which is to be expected when the murder victim was a federal judge.
In 1979, Judge John Wood (popularly known as “Maximum John” because of the tough sentences he dished out on a regular basis), was shot in the back outside his San Antonio home. “Charles Harrelson was charged with the murder after evidence revealed that drug kingpin Jimmy Chagra, whose case was about to come up before ‘Maximum John,’ had paid him $250,000,” according to History. Jimmy Chagra and his brother, Joseph, apparently hired Harrelson after meeting him in a Las Vegas hotel, per Time magazine. The Texan was picked up by police in 1980 after the FBI secretly recorded the Chagrases discussing the details of the murder during a prison visit. Harrelson was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
The manhunt for Wood’s killer cost in excess of $11 million, MySA later revealed. “It was the crime of the century, in San Antonio for sure,” lawyer Alan Brown told the San Antonio Express-News. “It was the first time someone assassinated a sitting federal judge. It was such an iconoclastic case, because it was believed a federal judge could not be touched.”
He once claimed he shot JFK
Charles Harrelson was already in custody when he was named as the man who killed Judge John Wood, having been picked up on weapons charges. The suspected hitman was arrested following a standoff with cops that played out over six hours, and he wasn’t in a good way. In fact, according to The Telegraph, he actually turned the gun on himself at one stage.
“Crazed and hallucinating from injecting cocaine, Charles Harrelson had convinced himself there was a bomb hidden in the muffler of his car,” the British broadsheet claimed in a report. “He pulled over to the side of the highway and began blasting at the car with his gun, blowing his tyre. Harrelson — shirtless and wearing cutoff jeans and gold chains — held himself hostage. With his gun under his chin, he threatened to kill himself.”
Officers eventually managed to talk Harrelson around, and when they took him in, he made a startling claim — the visibly high hitman told police that he was the one who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Those claims and the conspiracy theories they spawned would be debunked, but it shows the state of mind Harrelson was in when he was arrested. Once in custody, he sobered up and launched his patented charm offensive, according to the man tasked with watching him. “He was one of the most well mannered and intelligent person that I ever met in jail,” retired Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Kershaw told News 4 SA.
Woody Harrelson discovered the truth about his dad during a news bulletin
Woody Harrelson discovered that his dad was a suspected murderer in the most surreal of ways. “I was 11 or 12 when I heard his name mentioned on a car radio,” the actor, who’s had his own brushes with the law, recalled during his interview with The Guardian. “I was in the car waiting for a lady who was picking me up from school, helping my mum, and anyway I was listening to the radio and it was talking about Charles V Harrelson and his trial for murder and blah blah blah blah and I’m sitting there thinking, there can’t be another Charles V Harrelson. I mean, that’s my dad! It was a wild realisation.”
The better part of a decade would pass before Woody reached out to his old man — he thought it was time to talk after he was accused of another murder, that of Judge John Wood. According to the “Cheers” actor, their reunion went well under the circumstances. They “got along pretty good” by the time Charles died of a heart attack while behind bars for Wood’s murder in 2007. “When you can’t hang out and go to a pub, you know what I mean, it’s hard,” Woody said.
Charles apparently managed to convince his son that he wasn’t behind the murder of the judge during their conversations, because Woody “tried for years to get him out,” he admitted. “I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall… Lawyers upon lawyers.”
Charles Harrelson attempted a daring jailbreak
Woody Harrelson played a man being released from prison after a long stretch behind bars in U2’s music video for “Song for Someone” in 2015, but, as a person serving two consecutive life terms, Woody’s father knew that he would never walk free. That’s likely what Charles Harrelson had on his mind when he planned an audacious jailbreak with two of his fellow inmates back in 1995.
According to the reports, Charles tried to bust out with the help of Gary L. Settle and Michael Rivers, both of whom were serving time for bank robbery. “They climbed the wall with a makeshift rope,” the AP revealed, confirming that all three gave themselves up “after a warning shot was fired from the guard tower.” Charles was transferred to Supermax after his escape attempt, where he apparently came to terms with the fact that he would die a prisoner.
In a letter he wrote to a friend (obtained by The Denver Post) from his cell, Charles revealed that he had learned to love the peace and quiet. “The silence is wonderful, and feeling left alone is great… nobody bothers me,” he wrote. “Being able to take a shower anytime, stay awake all night if I wish… read or write or watch whatever TV channel (some 70 channels are available) or listen to the 10 or so radio stations… offers something akin to independence.” Charles also wrote letters to Gina, his fourth and final wife, “every day.”
Was Woody Harrelson's dad actually a secret CIA operative?
One of the reasons that Woody Harrelson believed his father didn’t deserve to be in jail for the killing of Judge John Wood was that Jimmy Chagra, the man who was originally supposed to have hired him, was acquitted of that charge. Another reason was that Charles Harrelson was, according to his son, a trained CIA operative. “I shouldn’t get into this right now,” the “Cheers” star said when asked to elaborate in a TV interview. “This is where we’re going to get into trouble… I know it’s true.”
The “Son of a Hitman” podcast makes the argument that Charles’ trial was potentially flawed, pointing to the fact that key eyewitness testimony was given under hypnosis, for some bizarre reason. Over the years, however, Woody began to accept that perhaps his dad was exactly where he belonged. “I don’t know he did deserve a new trial,” he told The Guardian, adding that he was “just being a son trying to help his dad.”
Meanwhile, Charles appeared to admit to his crimes in a note found by an FBI agent. ”God, it’s been a tough way — I’m sorry — not for me but for the pain I’ve caused others, both those who loved me and those who loved the people I’ve killed,” he jotted down (via The New York Times). ”I wish to be cremated with absolutely no religious services. My ashes should be spread on the John H. Wood Jr. Courthouse in San Antonio.”
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