Charles Harrelson Was An Encyclopedia Salesman, Federal Judge Slayer, And Woody Harrelson’s Father

When Woody Harrelson first rose to fame on the sitcom Cheers in 1985, his father had already made headlines for a much more nefarious reason. Charles Voyde Harrelson was given two life sentences for the murder of Texas judge John H. Wood Jr. - the first assassination of a US federal judge in the 20th century. 

While Woody would go on to enjoy a long and successful career in Hollywood, Charles's conviction was the end of a decades-long stint as a professional hitman. Although he was only ever convicted of two contract killings, it's believed that he was involved in many more. 

Here's the story of Charles Harrelson, a notorious figure in the Texas criminal underworld and a man who couldn't have been more different from his movie star son. 

  • He Worked A Variety Of Jobs Before Turning To Crime
    Photo: Houston Police Department / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    He Worked A Variety Of Jobs Before Turning To Crime

    Charles Harrelson was born in Lovelady, TX, on July 23, 1938, a birthday he would later share with his son Woody. Charles enlisted in the US Navy and served until 1959. After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles with his first wife, Diane. There, he worked as an encyclopedia salesman and professional gambler .

    At the age of 21, Charles was apprehended for the first time and was sent to prison at age 35. But he managed to reduce his sentence by serving as a jailhouse snitch .

  • In 1968, He Vanished From His Family's Life

    Charles and Diane relocated to Houston, TX, and had three sons: Woody, Brett, and Jordan. By 1965, Charles had divorced Diane and married his second wife, Betty. 

    Charles continued to gamble and owed money to organized crime outfits. In 1968, he was again arrested for armed robbery. He was let go, but shortly after, he abandoned his family and disappeared into the criminal underworld. Woody was in elementary school at the time.

    "I think they separated when I was seven," Woody told The Guardian in 2012. "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."

  • He Was Hired To Perform A Hit Against A Rival Carpet Salesman

    Charles continued to rack up gambling debts, and to pay them off, he turned to contract killing. His alleged first victim was Houston-area carpet salesman Alan Berg. According to Berg's brother, David, who later wrote a book about the killing titled Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family, a rival carpet salesman paid Harrelson $1,500 in 1968 to perform the hit. 

    According to the book, Harrelson's then-girlfriend, Sandra Sue Attaway, lured Alan into a car. Charles then ambushed him at gunpoint, forced him to drive to a remote location, and reportedly shot him in the temple before strangling him to death. Alan and David's father, Nathan, hired a private investigator to search for the culprit, and Charles was arrested. Incredibly, that private investigator was Charles's brother, Claude, who had no prior knowledge of Charles's involvement.

    Charles was put on trial in 1970. He was acquitted based on the testimony of alibi witnesses provided by his lawyer. David Berg has since disputed these testimonies and maintains that Charles is his brother's murderer.  

  • Six Months After His First Alleged Murder-For-Hire, Charles Was Paid To Kill A Texas Grain Dealer

    In 1968, Charles was also working with a grain broker named Pete Thomas Scamardo who ran a heroin smuggling business on the side. Scamardo's business partner, Sam Degelia, Jr., was also involved in the heroin smuggling. When Degelia lost a shipment of heroin in a Kansas City traffic stop, Scamardo paid Charles $2,000 to eliminate him. 

    At Charles's trial, famed defense attorney Percy Foreman produced a nightclub singer who said that Charles was with her at the time of the killing, resulting in a hung jury. Charles was given a retrial, but a potential perjury conviction forced the singer to flee the country before she could testify again. This time, Charles was convicted and sentenced to 15 years. He ended up serving only five before his release due to good behavior.