Author Jack Sheehan was in town recently to take the next step in a 12-year project: A 90-minute documentary and docudrama television series on Jimmy Chagra and the Chagra family.
“I’m a storyteller and this is a humdinger,” Sheehan said during his first visit to El Paso in March. “It’s the story of a tragic breakdown of an honest immigrant family that was well-regarded and well-respected in El Paso and the Lebanese community – and how it all came tumbling down.”
Accompanied by his camera crew from California and his son and daughter, Sheehan interviewed and filmed a number of El Pasoans about Chagra, who he called “the biggest pot smuggler in the world” at the time.
Sheehan and his team has already completed a dozen interviews in Las Vegas, where Jimmy was also “the biggest gambler in town,” said Sheehan, author of 28 books and a historian of modern-day Las Vegas.
One of those interviewed was Oscar Goodman, Chagra’s defense attorney and former three-term mayor of Las Vegas.
They’ll be back to collect more interviews. Over the next three months, they will edit those and combine them with photos and other material from Sheehan’s extensive files into a nine-minute movie trailer.
Sheehan will take that “sizzle reel” to sell the project to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or other networks.
“I think, conservatively, we have a minimum of a 10-hour full season series,” Sheehan said.
Several years ago, Sheehan wrote a two-hour screenplay on the drug kingpin and his brothers, attorneys Lee Chagra and Joe Chagra, and the rest of their extended family.
While a number of books have been written about Jimmy Chagra, including Texas Monthly editor Gary Cartwright’s “Dirty Dealing: Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border and the Assassination of a Federal Judge,” no full-length documentary or series has been developed.
“The Chagra story is the great untold – or rather unfilmed – Las Vegas crime story of the last half century,” Sheehan said.
But Sheehan has something no other author or producer has: 35 hours of taped interviews with Jimmy Chagra during his last two years of life and the rights to tell his life story.
Finding Jimmy Chagra
Chagra was sent to prison in 1979 for 30 years, but was released in 2003 with early stage lung cancer. He was safely placed in the witness protection program and living quietly with his third wife, Lynda.
Yet Sheehan was able to track him down to a trailer park in Mesa, Arizona, where he was living under the name of James Madrid.
Sheehan, nationally known for his golf journalism and commentary, arranged to interview Chagra about golf by phone. That first interview in June 2006, monitored by two agents listening in, launched a friendship between the two men. Sheehan found Chagra charistmatic, funny and charming and thought the 75-minute interview was the most interesting he had ever conducted.
Their talk led to other interviews and meetings in Arizona, and Chagra sold Sheehan the rights to his life story. The author formed a limited liability corporation, and with his partners bought the rights for a six-figure sum he wouldn’t specify.
“I talked to him probably 150 times over the last two years of his life,” Sheehan said.
“I knew there was a dark side to this guy, but he was so interesting to talk to. We both loved golf. We both loved music. We laughed.”
In the years since those talks and the formal filmed interviews, Sheehan has conducted further research.
“He admitted things that a man who was trying to deceive the world would never have admitted,” Sheehan said. “I don’t think he lied to me in those interviews because he knew he was dying. And he wanted his story to be told right.”
Jimmy Chagra died in July 2008, at the age of 63, almost exactly two years after his first interview with Sheehan.
Sheehan is more passionate than ever about telling the story of a complicated man and family.
“This is to me the most intriguing story I’ve encountered in my 43 years of writing.”