At the end of Thursday night’s panel discussion in the Mob Museum’s second-floor courtroom, my reaction was, “What have I been missing!?” The museum, as most Las Vegans know, is housed in a former Federal courthouse. The discussion, part of the museum’s “Courtroom Conversations” series, featured former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and writer Jack Sheehan discussing “The Life and Crimes of Jimmy Chagra.” Both men knew quite a bit about Chagra, the late drug kingpin and “degenerate” Las Vegas gambler. Goodman, in his days as a criminal defense attorney, defended Chagra, accused of “the crime of the century”, murdering a Federal judge in Texas. Sheehan had been intrigued by Chagra and ultimately was able to have a series of exclusive interviews with the former “big talker”.
The Chagra story has been told before, but hearing the discussion live was a special treat. Goodman was impressive in his knowledge of so many details from more than 30 years ago, and Sheehan’s enthusiasm for his subject and his subject’s story was obvious. (Sheehan has written a screenplay about Chagra.) The discussion, moderated by Geoff Schumacher, the museum’s Director of Content, was full of fascinating tidbits. I wondered what I had missed by not attending previous Courtroom Conversations.
At the height of Chagra’s power as a mobster and gambler, Sheehan said, he would come to Caesars Palace and deposit foot lockers full of money with which to gamble. He tipped lavishly, and an audience member who was formerly a craps dealer at Caesars Palace, noted, during the question-and-answer period, that the craps dealers had once gotten together and made a trophy for Chagra because of his lavish tips. Sheehan then added that he had seen the trophy; it was the only souvenir that Chagra, in his initial interview with Sheehan, had wanted to show the author.
Laughter was a good part of the evening. Goodman, as most Las Vegans know, loves an audience. In one story, he recalled that the murder trial of Chagra, which had been moved from Texas to Florida, required him to walk more than a mile to and from the courthouse while carrying two heavy lawyer bags. After the long trial, when he returned home, his wife Carolyn said he was “buff”. Goodman said proudly that was the first, and last, time he was ever called “buff”.
The attached video is actually an audio file with pictures. Oscar Goodman describes two of the Perry Mason moments in Chagra’s trial that ultimately resulted in him not being convicted of murder, although he was convicted of drug crimes and spent time in prison. The sound is not perfect, but if you want to hear the story, you can hear it. Incidentally, as crime watchers know, the man who was convicted of actually killing the judge was Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson. He may, according to Sheehan, or may not, according to Goodman, have been hired by Chagra.
Following the panel discussion, Schumacher told me that the “Courtroom Conversations” series is a form of journalism, in the sense that an audience is informed and, depending on the subject, a historical record is provided. Of course, the discussions also bring people to the museum, members and prospective members alike. The Chagra panel attracted a standing-room-only crowd. The cost for tickets was $25 for non-members, and $23 for members. Parking was free, though the lot next to the museum was crowded.
The next Courtroom Conversation is scheduled for June 24. The title is, “What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?”. Panelists include Scott Burnstein, co-producer of the 2015 documentary, Killing Jimmy Hoffa; Stanley Hunterton, Las Vegas attorney who as a young attorney in Detroit participated in the Jimmy Hoffa investigation, and Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars. Sounds interesting …. I’m going!