There was a murder at Christmastime 40 years ago


    There was a murder at Christmastime 40 years ago<p>{/p}

    Lee Chagra may be the most famous lawyer El Paso ever produced, and some might say the most infamous.

    Whatever others felt about him, to Lee's family, he was simply a beloved father and big brother.

    Two days before Christmas 40 years ago, in 1978, Chagra was murdered.

    And the emotions his life and death created all those years ago still feel as fresh as yesterday to his surviving family members.

    Teri Finnegan is Lee and Joanne Chagra's oldest child. "To this day, I run into attorneys who tell me stories about my dad that I still have never heard and I kind of take it as a sign from heaven that he's saying 'hi' to me."

    Teri followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a court reporter. She quickly found that, when she met attorneys, they told her stories about her father's courtroom theatrics. "People, literally -- I mean, I am in the legal community of El Paso and, so, older attorneys who've been around for a long time, they tell me stories. I mean, 'You're Lee Chagra's daughter?' 'Yes.' 'Oh, he would have been so proud that you're a court reporter.' 'Oh, thank you.' 'Let me tell you a story,'" Teri said.

    Patsy Chagra is Lee's little sister. "It was really exciting to go to court and watch Lee in action," Patsy said. She said she grew up in awe of her big brother, who graduated near the top of his class from the University of Texas Law School.

    He went on to become a courtroom sensation as a criminal defense attorney, representing clients such as the Bandidos biker gang along with some of the most notorious drug dealers of the 1970s, including his own little brother, Jimmy Chagra. "He really was amazing," Patsy said. "There was no one like Lee. There's never been. You can't say, 'Oh, well, we can compare him to somebody.' There's no one to compare him to. He was totally unique."

    Unfortunately, there were no cameras in the courtroom back then to record his antics. But the memories of those who witnessed Lee Chagra in action remain strong even four decades later. "I didn't really realize at the time what a good attorney he was. But his legend and his legacy -- I've learned along the way how many people he helped, how good he was at what he did and how original his style was," Teri said.

    I also spoke with Lee's son, Lee Chagra Jr., who's known to family and friends as Leader. I asked him whether, because his father was such a larger-than-life figure, was it more of a blessing or a burden to carry his name. Leader said, "I'll tell you, it's a little of both." He said, "I'm proud of my name.I'm proud of my father. He was a good man. Rarely in my life have I heard anyone say anything bad about my father."

    But even as a boy, Leader knew his father cast a long shadow. "Of course, the burden is he left a huge pair of shoes to fill that, you know, if I live six lifetimes, I couldn't even come close to it."

    Lee and Joanne Chagra raised their five children in a rarified world of glitz, glamour and money few other El Pasoans could imagine. "He was great friends with Wayne Newton and Paul Anka and Steve Wynn," Leader said. "You know, Steve Winn would come to our house. Benny Binnionwould too.

    Leader's father was a high roller in Las Vegas, along with his brother Jimmy. They'd keep tens of thousands of dollars stashed in suitcases and closets, and even their cowboy boots. "Unless you lived it," Teri said, "you can't really describe it to anybody because it was just a time that happened. You know, it was just a fleeting moment and I'm so happy I got to be a part of it."

    But life on the pink cloud came crashing to an end for Lee Chagra's family two days before Christmas in 1978. "Our life is defined as before Dec. 23 and after Dec. 23rd," Teri said.

    Lee had just returned home from a huge court victory in Arizona. His new law office was just down the street from Saint Patrick Cathedral on Mesa Street, and boasted the latest high-techsecurity equipment. Leader showed me how extensive it was. "There was a bell here. It would buzz up to the monitors my dad had up in his office that are connected to this camera," Leader said. "There's voice-activated things on either side."

    But the security system couldn't save Lee that day. At first, people thought hemust have been a hit by the mob, a drug cartel or an angry ex-client. It turned out to be none of those --just a pair of nervous, young Fort Bliss soldiers who were sent to rob Chagra by a distant relative who knew he often kept thousands of dollars lying around in the open.

    The relative told Lee the soldiers needed help with a legal matter and that's how they got in. The soldiers later admitted to killing Chagra during the robbery. Apparently, the sound of his metal lighter sparking up a cigarette spooked one of them into firing a deadly shot.

    A family's joyous Christmas suddenly became a cruel joke. "That tree and those presents stayed like that for I don't know how many weeks and I don't know how long it went on. We just, it just devastated us forever and we're still so affected by it. I mean, you can tell just by talking to us how affected we still are," Teri said.

    Chagra's children also believe Lee's murder contributed to their mother Joanne's premature death only eight years later.

    Lee's daughter Tina Marie expressed her grief through a song she wrote that contains theselyrics: "When he died, the tears fell down my face." Tina Marie said about her father, "He was everything to me and when he passed away it was extremely devastating, and it still is to this day."

    Lee's now been gone for about as long as he lived -- 40 years. But with time's passage, the younger Chagras have learned to live with their grief, embrace warm memories of their famous father and move forward with families of their own.

    Tina told me, "I think he's my daughter's guardian angel." I asked why and she replied, "I think that he takes care of her. I just feel like he's around." Leader said "I have my own family now. I have my daughters. So Christmas is once again a special time of year."

    Lee's sister Patsy said the generations of Chagras that have followed are her "total connection" to Lee, "because they're part of my brother and that makes me very happy."

    Soon after Lee Chagra's death, legal troubles started for many of his clients, including his little brother Jimmy.

    Local and federal law enforcement officials took control of Lee's law office for five days immediately after his murder, allowing investigators to go through his files.

    The following February, federal agents arrested Jimmy Chagra on drug trafficking charges. Then the federal judge overseeing his case, John Wood, was assassinated in May 1979. The law enforcement crackdown that followed effectively ended El Paso's run as one of the country's drug trafficking hubs.

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