Charles Harrelson, 69; father of actor killed federal judge

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Charles Harrelson, the father of actor Woody Harrelson, died of a heart attack at the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo., where he was serving two life sentences for the murder of a federal judge, officials said Wednesday. He was 69.

Charles Harrelson was found unresponsive in his cell the morning of March 15, said Felicia Ponce, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

Fremont County Coroner Dorothy Twellman said an autopsy showed that Harrelson had severe coronary artery disease. She said he probably died in his sleep. “It appears it was very sudden,” she said.


Harrelson was convicted of murder in the May 29, 1979, killing of U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr. outside his San Antonio home. Prosecutors said a drug dealer hired Harrelson to kill Wood because he did not want the judge to preside at his upcoming trial.

Harrelson, who had previously been convicted of murdering a Texas businessman, denied the murder, saying he was in Dallas, 270 miles away, at the time.

Wood, known as “Maximum John” for the sentences he gave in drug cases, was the first federal judge to be killed in the 20th century.

Charles Harrelson was transferred to Supermax, the highest-security federal prison, after attempting to break out of an Atlanta federal prison July 4, 1995. Other inmates at Supermax, about 90 miles south of Denver, include Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

His son got his start in acting as Woody the bartender on “Cheers” beginning in 1985 and went on to star in movies including “Natural Born Killers,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

Woody Harrelson’s publicist did not immediately return a call to the Associated Press seeking comment.


The actor was 7 when his father abandoned his wife and three sons in Houston.

“I don’t feel he was much of a father,” Woody Harrelson told People magazine in 1988. “He took no valid part in my upbringing.”

Still, the actor financed an appeal filed by his father in 1997 and with his brothers attended federal court proceedings in Texas and Colorado.

“The sad truth is that there are a lot of people out there who have experienced serious injustice,” the younger Harrelson told the Houston Chronicle in 1998, explaining that his father believed he did not get a fair trial in the Wood case.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans rejected the appeal in 2003, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider Harrelson’s claim in 2004.