K Paoletter 28: Loading the Boat

It was in the summer of 1976 that Lee and Jimmy Chagra became Las Vegas legends. Lee had already established something of a reputation in town, both for the El Paso criminal defense attorney’s knack for helping drug smugglers dodge jail time and for his habit of posting up at a craps table anytime he had money to burn. Like most serious gamblers, Lee won just enough to justify all the losing — on one occasion, he went on a run at the Aladdin that netted him $200,000, a large enough chunk of cash that the pit bosses had to ask Caesars Palace for a loan to cover the payout. And like any good Vegas character, Lee had little interest in keeping a low profile. As Gary Cartwright, one of the great chroniclers of modern Texas, wrote in his thrilling book about the Chagra family, 1984’s Dirty Dealing, Lee would spend hours in his hotel room before he headed down to the floor:

“Standing in front of the mirror, he would snap the pearl buttons of his red checkered cowboy shirt, then climb into the black Western-cut leisure suit. He would attach his belt to the giant solid-gold buckle with the thick crust of diamonds, and draw on his black alligator cowboy boots. Checking himself again in the mirror, he would fuss with the black cowboy hat with LEE CHAGRA and FREEDOM embossed in gold on the brim until he achieved the proper tilt and slope. Finally, he would pose with the ebony cane with its gold satyr’s-head handle, squinting and turning until he was satisfied. It was an incredible sight. Right before your eyes Lee Chagra became the Black Striker.”

The Chagras’ father first arrived in El Paso as a child in 1911, after his parents, who had immigrated to Mexico City from Lebanon, fled the Mexican Revolution (it was south of the border that their original surname, Busha’ada, was Mexicanized to Chagra). Once in America, Lee and Jimmy’s grandfather opened a produce stand behind the courthouse downtown, which his lone son, Abdou, eventually took over. After Abdou’s wife Josephine, from the well-to-do family that had founded the Border Tobacco Company, birthed Lee, the doctors told her it was unlikely she’d manage to become pregnant again. Faithful Catholics, both parents prayed for more children, with Abdou even swearing he’d walk barefoot to the top of Mount Christo Rey for another child. Lo and behold, a daughter was born, with two more sons, Jamiel (make that Jimmy) and Joseph, following in the years to come.  

Jimmy spent much of his life in his older brother’s shadow. Lee graduated fourth in his class at the University of Texas Law School — whereupon he was denied an invitation to a gala held by a swanky Houston law firm due to the misperception that he was Mexican — and built his practice into one of the most prominent in West Texas. Jimmy, on the other hand, barely attended college and ended up operating a rug store underwritten by his parents.What he did share with his elder brother was a fiendish obsession with gambling, which led Jimmy to abandon the rug business for a floating blackjack game that eventually became his full-time occupation.

The perception of Jimmy as a drag on the family changed when the middle brother came into a literal boatload of money in 1975. His backroom dealing had led him into a friendship with a former Army helicopter pilot who was stationed at El Paso’s Fort Bliss but was rumored to have some connections with the Patriarca crime family, which operated across New England. Against all odds, the pair coordinated the shipment and offloading of 54,000 pounds of Colombian marijuana at Folly’s Cove, a sheltered natural harbor near Gloucester, Massachusetts. As Cartwright puts it, “The old black sheep, the family goof-up, had just made more money in two weeks than Lee had made his entire life.”

As soon as the money started flowing, Lee and Jimmy were on their way to Vegas. Weeks into the gambling spree, the Chagras were blowing so much cash in the regular visits to Caesars that the casino was happy to send a Learjet to pick them up in El Paso whenever they called for it. “When either of the Chagras sat down at the blackjack table,” Cartwright writes, “he took all seven spots.” While even most high-stakes players were limited to betting $1,000 per hand, Lee was allowed to bet $3,000, which he did for all seven spots, laying $21,000 at a time. Over at the craps table, Jimmy would stack $10,000 in chips on each number, leaving $120,000 on the table to guarantee a payout on almost every roll but risk a disastrous loss if the dice came up seven.  

“For pure gambling,” one of the Chagras’ friends told Cartwright, “Jimmy may have been the strongest anyone in Vegas ever saw. There have been people who gambled higher in one sitting, but week after week, month after month, nobody kept coming, kept flat firing at ‘em like Jimmy Chagra.”All those rolls and hands of blackjack added up. The youngest brother, Joe, would later estimate his brothers lost at least $3 million that summer. Adjust for inflation, and we’re talking more than $16 million.

While every high-rolling Vegas story ends the same way, the collapse of the Chagra family was particularly brutal. By 1977, Lee had learned that he was being investigated by the Department of Justice for drug trafficking — for a second time, that is, after a 1973 grand jury in Tennessee indicted him but expired before it had gathered sufficient evidence to bring charges. Appropriately enough, the revelation came during a trial where Lee was representing one of Jimmy’s partners in the Gloucester windfall. The next weekend, Lee called Caesars to have a Learjet pick him up, but once he was in Vegas everything turned sour. In the next 48 hours, he burned through all but $10,000 of his hard-earned $250,000 credit at Caesars, then another $200,000 of credit at the Aladdin. By Monday morning, the haggard Black Striker was asking for a new stack of chips worth $5,000 from a blackjack dealer and hearing an unexpected response: no.

A little over a year later, Lee was dead, murdered two days before Christmas by a pair of Fort Bliss soldiers who had been hired by his cocaine dealer to steal more than a hundred grand from the lawyer’s office on Mesa Street, just two blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where the Chagras’ mother still dutifully attended mass every Sunday. Though they hadn’t intended to kill Lee, the soldiers panicked when they thought they saw him reaching for a pistol. Jimmy wore the Black Stricker get-up to the funeral, an homage to his slain brother that doubled as confirmation he was assuming Lee’s place as family patriarch. 

The ascension was short lived. Jimmy managed one more big score, importing another 50,000 pounds of Columbian weed through Fort Lauderdale, but became too preoccupied with gambling away his latest cash infusion to notice as everyone he worked with on the deal got arrested on an assortment of other drug charges. “Every major member of the gang was talking to the feds,” Cartwright writes. “Talking about Jimmy Chagra.”

In just two months at the end of 1978, Jimmy won $2.6 million at Caesars—and lost $4.8 million. One pit boss remembered an occasion where Jimmy ran through close to a million dollars in a single night. When it was time to collect, Jimmy declined to sign a marker for the losses and instead said he would pay cash. “We went up to his suite,” the pit boss told Cartwright,

“There was a bunch of security men standing around, and he brought out this footlocker and dumped money out on the floor. There were packs of bills — ones, fives, tens, twenties, hundreds — packs of five thousand dollars, tied with rubber bands or with Caesars wrappers.”

When the pit boss went downstairs, he was carrying a bag stuffed with $915,000.

The free-wheeling nights at Caesars stopped that December, when the casino learned Jimmy was likely to be spending a lot of time in court in the very near future. He moved his action downtown, to Binion’s Horseshoe, with a sideline on losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to golf hustlers at the Dunes.When Jimmy was indicted on five counts that February, he retained Oscar Goodman — a legendary Vegas figure in his own right, the attorney parlayed his storied career of defending accused mobsters and drug dealers into three terms as the city’s mayor, ending in 2011 when his wife, Carolyn, took over the city’s government.

However lavish, the Chagras’ lives were just an outsize manifestation of a common enough condition in the Southwestern soul: a near pathological need to be taken seriously by outsiders. For Lee, that meant showing up self-satisfied federal prosecutors by repeatedly demonstrating law enforcement had cut corners to secure wiretaps on his clients, making the damning evidence they collected inadmissible in court. For Jimmy, it meant courting organized crime figures from back East, casting himself as the big shot of the borderlands. Where better for this psychodrama to play out than Las Vegas, the absolute locus of the region’s tendency toward striving self-sabotage?

Both men’s self-mythologies proved so powerful as to completely bewitch the law: Prosecutors were so taken by the image the Chagras had cultivated that they let another plausible ringleader of the Fort Lauderdale deal, Henry Wallace, completely off the hook in exchange for his testimony. “Wallace, not Jimmy Chagra, thought up most of the details of the scam and hired or contacted most of the other conspirators” writes Cartwright. All in all, prosecutors ended up “trading virtually the entire conspiracy for a single man, who, if all those years of investigation were to be believed, was not even the boss.” 

Jimmy’s enormous ego made the delusion mutual. “Jimmy seemed to want it both ways,” Cartwright reflects, “he wanted to be found not guilty, but he also wanted people to believe that he was the boss.” Jimmy pressed Goodman to argue that the Fort Lauderdale score had actually been orchestrated by the DEA, which the jury didn’t exactly find persuasive: Jimmy was found guilty on all counts. Shortly before he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison, Jimmy skipped bail to make one last trip to Vegas. He rented a motel room off the Strip and called up a casino employee he knew, asking him to bring by some fake wigs so he could hit the floor, incognito. The contact tipped off the FBI, and they caught up with Jimmy while he was driving his white Chevrolet out of the motel’s parking lot, a diaper box filled with $187,000 in the passenger seat.


Earlier this week, the Census Bureau released a joint study with Harvard about the migration patterns of American millennials, which was headlined by the finding that just 20% of us lived more than 100 miles from the place we were born by the time we turned 26. In its writeup of the report, the AP highlighted that “Migration distances were shorter for Black and Hispanic individuals, compared to white and Asian young adults, and the children of higher income parents traveled farther away from their hometowns than those of less wealthy parents.” Using an interactive the study’s authors put together, I dug into the data for the Southwest and found that the overall numbers for every big city in the region pretty much mirror the national average. What those top-line numbers mask, however, is an enormous split between the white and Hispanic populations. Phoenix had the narrowest gap, with 29% of Anglos leaving compared with 15% of Hispanics, while Las Vegas, Tucson, and Albuquerque all saw around 40% of whites move away versus 20% of Hispanics. Where was the difference most drastic? El Paso, where more than half of Anglos — 53% — were gone by the age of 26, compared with just 16% of Hispanics. 


That’s all for now. I’m headed to Arizona next month to spend some time in both Phoenix and Tucson, which you’ll be hearing about once I’m home and have spent a week in a walk-in freezer to fully recover from late summer in the Sonoran. In the meantime, thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or picking up a small stone from a rocky beach in Maine and despairing as it dries out and its vivid emerald green turns gray.

Your pal,

Kyle

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