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The Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination: What Really Happened?

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination:

What Really Happened?

by Mel Ayton

More than 35 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. polls continue to indicate that the truth about the murder is still unclear for the majority of Americans. Despite government investigations and extensive research by writers who have concluded that no evidence is available to support the claims made by the conspiracy advocates, the case remains one of America's great whodunits.

Doubts about James Earl Ray, Dr. King's lone assassin, arose almost immediately after the civil rights leader was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. From the start, during King's funeral, his aides voiced suspicions that a conspiracy was responsible for their leader's death.

The political culture of America in the late 1960s and 1970s was very favorable to any theory that gave credence to government- oriented murder plots against public figures who challenged the authority of the establishment. The U.S. public, confronted with a litany of stories about the Kennedy assassinations, CIA plots against foreign leaders, and the scandalous reports about J. Edgar Hoover's FBI domestic spying activities, were ready to believe that a pathetic individual like James Earl Ray must have received some kind of assistance from sophisticated plotters -- most likely in the pay of the government.

There were no witnesses who saw Ray kill King. The government relied on circumstantial evidence, albeit evidence that strongly indicated Ray's guilt. Scrutinizing the King murder case carefully, citizens on both sides of the conspiracy debate found many puzzling anomalies that were hard to explain. This is typical of most murder cases that are based entirely on circumstantial evidence where the accused denies guilt. There are loose ends that are never tied up. This was true of the Kennedy assassinations no less than the King assassination. Law enforcement officials know that all the pieces of evidence will not always tie up. There will always be mysteries and even after a murder is "solved" there will be evidence that just doesn't fit.

That Ray did not go to trial was, in some part, his own fault. On Nov. 10, 1968, two days before his trial was originally scheduled, Ray fired his first defense lawyer, Arthur Haynes, who had already plead Ray not guilty to the charge of murdering King. Ray, convinced by his brother Jerry that famous Houston lawyer Percy Foreman could provide him with a better defense, fired Haynes and took on Foreman.

Soon after Foreman took over the case, the state's prosecutors made Ray an offer: in exchange for a guilty plea, the state would not ask for the death penalty. After considering the case against his client, Foreman spelled it out to Ray: He did not stand a chance of being found not guilty and in Tennessee stiff penalties were given even for men with previously spotless records -- and for accomplices as well as killers. Furthermore, Foreman told Ray, Memphis juries had been hard on first-degree murder defendants. Foreman told him he would probably receive a long sentence -- 99 years -- if he pled guilty, but this would not be a real problem for Ray. If Ray had received the minimum sentence for murder, 20 years for the State of Tennessee, this would effectively have meant that Ray would serve the rest of his life in prison. Once that sentence was over, he would be arrested immediately and extradited to Missouri to complete his original 20-year sentence. On the March 6, 1969, Ray signed a 55-paragraph confession.

As a result of Ray's guilty plea, the trial became a simple procedure to present the evidence of Ray's guilt to the court. The jury was provided with information of a deal between the defense and the prosecution and the prosecution provided the court with the brief and essential elements of the case against Ray. The judge, W. Preston Battle, then issued the agreed upon sentence. There was nothing sinister in the arrangement. Similar agreements had been made thousands of times in courts across the nation. Prosecution and defense deals were designed to save the state the costs of a trial and to save the time of court officials. In addition, guilty pleas guaranteed the prosecution a conviction.

After Ray was sentenced, he retracted his confession, claiming he was forced to plead guilty by Foreman. There developed a feeling that the American people had been robbed of a proper trial in which all issues surrounding the tragedy had been thoroughly examined. There were some witnesses who were not consistent with their stories. The bullet that killed King could not be matched to the Remington rifle found at the scene of the crime. And the circumstantial and ballistics evidence provided opportunities for Ray's defenders to claim that there was reasonable doubt as to the alleged assassin's guilt. Enough unanswered questions existed to allow conspiracy theorists to present doubt about the prosecution's case.

The U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations Investigation

In the mid-1970s, the U.S. House of Representatives initiated a Congressional investigation (HSCA) into the assassination of Dr. King and concluded, in 1979, that Ray had been the assassin but there was a likelihood he had been part of a conspiracy that had been planned by a group of right-wing Southerners.

Justice Department officials, responding to the HSCA's investigation, could find no solid evidence with which to charge any suspects. The two suspects who were named by the HSCA, St. Louis businessmen John Sutherland and John Kauffmann, who the HSCA said were racially inspired to offer a bounty on King's head, had died of natural causes in the early 1970s.

The HSCA investigation found that Kauffmann had numerous links to the Missouri State Penitentiary where Ray had been incarcerated before his 1967 escape. Kauffmann was a friend of the prison doctor, Hugh Maxey, who had treated Ray at the prison. It was also believed that Kauffman, who would later be tried for drug dealing, supplied illegal drugs to the prison through an accomplice. However, it was the 1968 Wallace presidential campaign that provided the likely conduit for the bounty offer. Kauffmann's associate, wealthy businessman John Sutherland, helped finance the campaign and Kauffman was actively involved as a campaign worker.

The HSCA was unable to establish conclusively the truth about the St. Louis-based conspiracy. In 1998 the chief counsel for the HSCA, G. Robert Blakey, said, "What we came up with was the possibility of a race-based conspiracy in St. Louis where a $50,000 bounty had been offered on Dr. King's life involving two men, Sutherland and Kauffman. It was only a possibility; we couldn't prove it and both of them were dead before our investigation started. But we were able to trace Kauffman to the Grapevine Tavern in St. Louis, where he used to hold meetings of the American Party. James Earl Ray's brother, John, owned the tavern. Was it possible that the $50,000 bounty was discussed in the tavern and heard by John Ray, and that John Ray then conveyed it to James Earl? Yes. Were we ever able to say definitively that John Ray was the conduit from the Kauffman group to James Earl? No."

Credible and substantial evidence that would confirm any direct link between Ray and individuals or groups who had offered a bounty has never been found. Nonetheless, the strands of various witness statements gathered by government investigations and independent researchers have provided a likely scenario of how Ray had been inspired by offers of a bounty on King.

From the evidence provided by the FBI files and the HSCA report, it appears likely that Ray did have specific knowledge of money being offered by one or more groups to anyone who would kill King. There is no evidence to suggest an offer was made to Ray personally or that promises were made to deliver any money to him. There is credible evidence that one or both of Ray's brothers aided him in the assassination, and the three of them had discussed the murder of King.

Both Jerry and John Ray were in communication with their brother James before and following his escape from Missouri State Penitentiary in April 1967. John Ray was operating the Grapevine Tavern in St. Louis during this period and, like every habitual criminal, James Earl Ray was looking for the big score.

John Ray was in continual association with workers for George Wallace's presidential campaign. They often frequented his establishment because their headquarters were in the same block as the Grapevine Tavern. Sutherland, a committed racist who often dressed in Confederate regalia, participated actively in the White Citizens Council of St. Louis and began holding meetings in a building not far from the Grapevine. When the meetings finished, some members would go over to the Grapevine and socialize with campaign workers. Others would engage John Ray in conversation. Given the nature of John and Jerry Ray's extremist right-wing politics, it is plausible that the subject of Martin Luther King had been discussed. It is also possible individuals in Kauffman's group discussed the idea of a bounty. During John's prison visits he may have told James about his conversations at the Grapevine and that an offer of a bounty had been discussed.

If a bounty was offered and taken up by the Ray brothers, it was never collected. The source of James Earl Ray's traveling money, following his 1967 escape from Missouri State Penitentiary, was probably his prison savings -- money accrued through his "merchant" activities in prison and, as the HSCA suspected, the proceeds from the robbery of an Alton, Ill., bank.

Author George McMillan provided some evidence to support the idea that no money had been collected from alleged conspirators. McMillan said that some time following Ray's capture and extradition to Memphis, Jerry Ray approached Kent Courtney, leader of a right-wing political organization in New Orleans. James Earl Ray had read about the conservative lawyer in a newspaper, The American Independent. Jerry wanted help for his brother but was unable to pay for it. Courtney had recorded the conversation with Jerry and a copy of the tape was handed over to the HSCA in the late 1970's. As McMillan argued, if James Earl Ray had been paid for killing King, the solicitation of funds would have been unnecessary.

The HSCA suspected that Ray's mysterious co-conspirator Raoul was, in fact, Jerry Ray (James Earl Ray has never provided any concrete proof that Raoul actually existed). Although the HSCA could never prove it, there were many signs that Jerry Ray had assisted his brother prior to and following the assassination. The HSCA did not believe there was sufficient evidence to profer any charges against either of Ray's brothers, even though G. Robert Blakey thought John Ray should have been at least charged with perjury for falsely testifying at the committee hearings.

Before his trial James Earl Ray spoke to Dr. McCarthy DeMere, who examined him in the Shelby County Jail. DeMere asked Ray, "Did you really do it"? Instead of denying guilt or relating how he was an innocent patsy, Ray said, "Well, let's put it this way, I wasn't in it by myself." Conspiracy advocates would naturally point to this story to show how Ray admitted a widespread conspiracy, yet there is another interpretation: One or both of his brothers had assisted Ray. At the very least, DeMere's testimony eliminates the possibility Ray was a patsy. And, according to Ray's lawyer, Percy Foreman, in sworn testimony before the HSCA, the lawyer "…cross-examined James Earl Ray for hours and the only name that he ever mentioned other than his own at any phase of his preparation for the killing…was his brother Jerry…Jerry was with him when he bought the rifle in Birmingham, the one he did not use because it was low caliber. He took it back…and Jerry was not with him…but he was with him the day before at the same place where he bought another rifle for (the purposes of killing King)."

Although Ray's fingerprints were on the rifle, the HSCA could not determine whether or not the slug found in King's body could be matched directly with the Remington found at the scene of the crime. Conspiracy buffs pointed to this fact as proof that another weapon was used to kill King. (There is a common misperception that if a bullet is fired from a gun it can always be matched to the weapon to the exclusion of all other weapons. Some guns do not leave distinctive marks on bullets. Furthermore, it had always been Ray's contention that Raoul shot King with the rifle found in Canipe's doorway; in other words if the 1997 tests had indeed been correct in establishing it was not the rifle that killed King, Raoul planted the wrong rifle.)

What the 1997 tests did establish was that the rifle found at the scene of the King assassination cannot be excluded as the murder weapon. Its barrel does not possess any consistent distinguishing marks and it has the same general characteristics as the markings left on the death slug. General rifling characteristics are the consistent features inside the barrel of all rifles of the same make and model. All tests carried out on the rifle, including those experts retained by Ray's attorney, found that the bullet and the test fires shared the same rifling characteristics.

The 1999 Conspiracy Trial

In 1995 Ray's London-based attorney, William Pepper, asserted that his client was innocent. The conspiracy to kill King, Pepper claimed, was organized by the U.S. government. Pepper alleged that government agents gave the contract to the head of organized crime in New Orleans who, in turn, solicited the assistance of a Mafia member in Memphis to handle the arrangements. The Memphis Mafia boss then hired Loyd Jowers, owner/operator of Jim's Grill beneath Ray's rooming house, to handle the payoff and dispose of the murder weapon. A U.S. Army sniper squad was in place to shoot King if the Mafia hit failed. Pepper alleged that the FBI, CIA, the media, Army Intelligence, and state and city officials helped cover up the assassination. In the late '90s Pepper claimed to have found Ray's handler, the mysterious Raoul (now re-named Raul by Pepper). Raul was allegedly a Portuguese immigrant living in New York State.

During the period when the Justice Department had been investigating these new allegations of conspiracy, the King family, represented by Pepper, sued Loyd Jowers in a wrongful-death lawsuit. They believed Jowers's 1993 televised admission that he had participated in a "conspiracy" to kill King gave King's family sufficient grounds to initiate a private law suit. During the 1999 four-week civil trial, which was held in a Shelby County Court House in Memphis, Pepper repeated the claims he had made in his 1995 book, Orders To Kill. Pepper had no interest in seeing Loyd Jowers go to jail. The whole thrust of Pepper's efforts was in trying to prove that Jowers was merely a tool in a larger conspiracy involving the FBI, the Military, the CIA, and the Mafia. Pepper's thesis centered on the reasons why the government wanted to eliminate the civil rights leader.

From the start, Pepper's courtroom allegations were viewed by many commentators as ludicrous, dependent as they were on the stories of many discredited witnesses who did not reveal their far-fetched tales until many years after the assassination. The jury, which consisted of six blacks and six whites, took three hours to reach its verdict of conspiracy involving Jowers. The King family received a token $100 award. The guilty verdict was hardly surprising, considering that Jowers's lawyer never disputed the contentions of the King lawyers. As the jury heard no evidence to rebut the conspiracy theory, it was inevitable it would return a verdict favorable to Pepper and the King family. The trial was, effectively, bogus.

The DOJ team of investigators (appointed by U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and which had no connection to the FBI) released its report in June 2000. The report rejected all of Pepper's conspiracy claims that had been made during the conspiracy trial, and provided evidentiary proof to support the team's conclusions.

Pepper never presented any credible evidence that would have supported his allegations, especially those of FBI involvement in the murder, or the allegation that the bureau never looked for a conspiracy in the first place. Contrary to the claims made by conspiracy advocates, it is clear that FBI senior officials kept an open mind during their assassination investigation. An FBI memo written by FBI Supervisor John S. Temple supports this conclusion. Temple wrote, "Supervisor Long also advised that Assistant Director DeLoach told Assistant Director Rosen that Los Angeles should keep in mind that King may have been killed by a hired assassin."

Another memo, written by J. Edgar Hoover, corroborates this finding. The memo states, "I said (to Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark)...there will be efforts to kill (Ray) if there is a conspiracy and if there is no conspiracy, the supporters of Dr. King will do everything in their power to kill him...I said I think he acted entirely alone but we are not closing our minds that others might be associated with him and we have to run down every lead."

Historian Gerald McKnight believes there is no evidence to support the allegations the FBI was involved in King's killing and, furthermore, such ideas were far-fetched and illogical. McKnight wrote, "...there is nothing in the released documents to support, and persuasive evidence to reject, assertions that the FBI and Memphis Police Department conspired to assassinate King."

Additionally, if Hoover had planned to neutralize King by killing him he would have first destroyed the COINTELPRO records that contained evidence of the FBI's illegal surveillance of the civil rights leader. It is also rational to conclude that the bureau would never conspire with organizations or individuals outside the bureau for such a risky undertaking. After all, the FBI maintained its power by acting as a state within a state. Any knowledge of its activities by outsiders would have left the bureau extremely vulnerable. As FBI profiler John Douglas wrote, "...anyone who's worked in the government, even in the intelligence community, will tell you that NOTHING that big or well publicized stays secret for long. The big bureaucracy is fundamentally incapable of carrying out a conspiracy and keeping it under wraps."

Conveniently, much of the evidence Pepper presented at the 1999 conspiracy trial was curiously absent -- including the real rifle alleged to shoot King (at the bottom of the Mississippi River), the Memphis Police Department shooter (dead before his accusers went public), the Mafia organizer of the conspiracy (dead before his accusers "found" evidence of his role in the crime), photographs showing Ray did not shoot King (they have never surfaced), members of an Army sniper team (anonymous and "living in another country"), and their purported leader, whom Pepper mistakenly named.

Innocent events -- the so-called "second Mustang" (it was likely another white car of a different make, parked nearby or witnesses became confused when Ray left the rooming house then parked in a different spot when he returned), the damaged scope on the rifle found at the scene of the crime, policemen dropping from the wall opposite the Lorraine Motel, Rev. Kyles's poor choice of words to describe his actions shortly before King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel ("Only as I moved away so he could have a clear shot…"), the innocent statements made by the Portuguese immigrant's daughter that the "government" had helped her family -- all became part of Pepper's malevolent conspiracy jigsaw puzzle that distorted the truth about the assassination.

As visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, David Greenburg, wrote, "Despite multiple debunking these (conspiracy) fantasies endure…a crackpot named William F. Pepper has convinced King's entire family that the U.S. Government, including President Lyndon Johnson, was responsible for his death…Conspiracists adopt the trappings of scholarship, touting irrelevant titles and credentials. They burrow into the arcana of their topics and inundate potential acolytes with a barrage of pedantic detail. Rather than build a case from evidence, conspiracists deny the available evidence, maintaining that appearances deceive. Rather than admit to inconvenient facts, they dismiss them as lies, making their own theories irrefutable."

Gerald Posner looked into the background of Pepper's Raul and discovered that the Portuguese immigrant had nothing to do with the assassination. In 2000, the DOJ investigators found proof within the FBI files that the car radio in Ray's Mustang did not work at the time of the assassination, thereby putting to lie Ray's story that he first heard about King's assassination when he drove away from the scene of the crime. The DOJ investigators also proved that many of the Jowers's trial witnesses were motivated by financial gain, documents provided by an ex-FBI agent, allegedly proving the existence of Ray's handler, Raoul, were bogus and the allegations of U.S. Army involvement in the murder were fabricated lies. During my own research I discovered that Ray was an occasional smoker. It is an issue that addresses the myth, propagated over the years, that Ray had an accomplice who left cigarette butts in the Mustang's ashtray.

What became unfortunate about this case was the way in which Pepper stopped at nothing to malign innocent participants who had been caught up in his quest to prove a non-existent and far-fetched conspiracy organized by the U.S. government. He disgracefully pointed the finger of guilt at not only Rev. Kyles but also accused the widow of a Memphis Police Department "conspirator" of having lied about her husband's role in the conspiracy. Raul, the innocent Portuguese immigrant, had his life turned upside down by Pepper's desire to implicate him in a plot. Pepper displayed no guilt in accusing each of his targets of criminal acts, perjury in the first instance and murder in the second. He also accused King assassination authors Gerold Frank and George McMillan of having sinister ties to the FBI and/or CIA, implying they conspired with the government to hide the truth or simply were duped when they investigated the King murder. He even gave credence to one of his star witnesses, Glenda Grabow, a JFK conspiracy fantasist who maligned the character of LBJ aide Jack Valenti by describing him as a pornographer. Instead of showing her the door, he enlisted her as a Jowers trial witness. As Pepper's former investigator, Ken Herman, told BBC documentary makers, "Pepper is the most gullible person I have ever met in my life".

Pepper's thesis is manifestly absurd. The idea that the U.S. government had King executed means that high officials of the Johnson administration were prepared to risk riot and arson in order to attain the elimination of a single individual. It is inconceivable that Johnson officials would have failed to see that the murder of a prominent African-American leader would have led to this inevitable outcome. Considering all that had happened in the previous four years, including the terrible destruction and rioting that occurred in major cities across the United States, his allegations become preposterous.

The true facts about the assassination are far removed from the exaggerations and speculative accounts of the conspiracy-minded. Ray made every decision and took every action leading up to the assassination. No credible evidence exists that would indicate he was used as a patsy or was instructed to participate in the crime. Ray researched the rifle, the ammunition, and the telescopic sight. Ray bought the Mustang, had it serviced, rented the rooms on his journeys, made his own telephone calls, bought his own clothes, and had them laundered.

Ray was identified by landlady Bessie Brewer as the person who rented Room 5B of the South Main Street rooming house, and he was also identified by lodger Charles Q. Stephens, as the man who left the bathroom of the rooming house following the shooting. (Despite attempts by conspiracy advocates to claim Stephens was drunk at the time Ray left the bathroom and therefore could not be a credible witness, police officers have testified under oath that Stephens was "intoxicated but in full control of himself.")

Ray's fingerprints proved that he owned the bundle that was dropped in the doorway of Canipe's Amusement store shortly after the shooting. The bundle contained the rifle used to shoot King. Ray had expressed hatred for African-Americans. Ray lied time and time again about his movements when he fled the scene of the crime. Incontrovertible and overwhelming evidence exists to prove these facts.

The Motive

Many investigators and researchers have provided proof of Ray's underlying motive for the crime, but conspiracy advocates refuse to accept the results of their research. George McMillan's interviews with Jerry and John Ray in the early 1970s and Gerald Posner's excellent research in the 1990s proved that Ray did indeed harbor racist sentiments. During the FBI's 1968 investigation of the assassination, agents interviewed practically everyone who had known James Earl Ray from the time he was a young boy. It had over 3,000 agents at one time or another working on the case. They asked those who had known Ray if the assassin had ever expressed racial hatred towards African-Americans and Martin Luther King Jr. in particular. Literally dozens of people, who lived far apart from one another, testified that Ray harbored a deep hatred for African-Americans and had expressed that hatred frequently up to the time he committed his deadly act.

Typical of the associates of Ray who were interviewed was Ray's uncle, William E. Maher. Maher told FBI agents that, prior to Ray's entry into the Army, Ray worked at a shoe tannery in Hartford, Ill., where he became associated with an individual who had pro-Nazi leanings; Ray became anti-Negro and anti-Jewish as a result. Maher also said that, while in military service, Ray was stationed in Germany where his anti-Negro and anti-Jewish opinions crystallized.

Another close associate of Ray's was Walter Rife. Ex-convict Rife had known Ray since he was a teenager in Quincy, Ill. They were close friends in the 1950s, and Ray and Rife were also colleagues in crime. Rife said, "Yeah, Jimmy was a little outraged about Negroes. He didn't care for them at all. There was nothing particular he had against them, nothing they had done to him. He said once they ought to be put out of the country. Once he said, ‘Well, we ought to kill them, kill them all...He was unreasonable in his hatred for niggers. He hated to see them breathe. If you pressed it, he'd get violent in a conversation about it. He hated them! I never did know why..."

Following Ray's April 1967 escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary, he spent time in Chicago (April/June 1967), Canada (July/August 1967), Birmingham, Ala., (September/October 1967), Mexico (October/November 1967) and Los Angeles (November 1967- March 1968). Many people who crossed paths with Ray during his post-prison escape travels corroborate his hatred of African-Americans.

Ray first fled to Canada where he spent some time at a ski resort, Grey Rocks. There he met a woman he liked but he may have been using her to secure a passport. The divorced woman, Claire Keating, was a Canadian civil servant. She told author, William Bradford Huie, "I can't remember how the subject came up but he said something like, ‘You got to live near niggers to know ‘em.' He meant that he had no patience with the racial views of people like me who don't ‘know niggers' and that all people who ‘know niggers' hate them."

During Ray's stay in Mexico he became acquainted with a number of bar girls, one of whom related a telling example of Ray's anger towards African-Americans. Manuela Aguirre Medrano (known as "Irma La Douce") worked at the Casa Susana, a brothel in Peurto Vallarta. She said that Ray told her he "hated niggers" and he said many insulting things about African-Americans. Medrano observed how Ray's personality changed as the conversation turned to the issue of civil rights and that, during one date with Medrano, Ray grew angry at four African-Americans sailors who had been sitting at the bar. Medrano could not understand why Ray became angry with them but did say that at one point Ray went to his car to get his pistol. According to Medrano he wanted to follow them out of the bar with his pistol but she stopped him. Ten years later Medrano was interviewed by the HSCA and denied Ray's reactions to the African-American sailor's remarks was "racist." However, as Gerald Posner concluded, "…it is…likely that the sailor's race incited (Ray), more so than someone accidentally touching his $8-a-day prostitute."

Another racial incident involving Ray occurred in Los Angeles where the fugitive went following his short stay in Mexico. Bob Del Monte, a bartender at the Rabbit's Foot Club, said Ray became involved in a heated discussion about race with one of the bar's women patrons, Pat Goodsell. Evidently, Goodsell had spotted Ray's Mustang that was always parked outside the club when Ray visited the establishment. The car showed Alabama license plates. Goodsell berated Ray for the way people in Alabama treated African-Americans. Ray ended up dragging Goodsell to the bar's door saying, "I'll drop you off in Watts and we'll see how you like it there." Del Monte also recalled that shortly after this incident an African-American patron of the Rabbit's Foot was struck on the head by a rock or brick while in the nearby parking lot. He suspected Ray threw the rock.

Deputy Sheriff William DuFour guarded Ray following the assassin's capture and extradition to Memphis. DuFour had been one of the TACT force officers near the Lorraine Motel when King was shot. He reached King as he lay dying. DuFour helped to carry King down to the ambulance, drenching himself with King's blood. DuFour would play card games and watch television with Ray during his shifts and developed a close relationship with the accused assassin. DuFour said that Ray had pet names for people including the man he was accused of murdering. Ray often referred to Martin Luther King as "Martin Lucifer King".

On the evening following Ray's guilty plea his brothers said, "All his life Jimmy has been wild on two subjects. He's been wild against niggers, and he's wild on politics. He's wild against any politician who's for niggers, and he's wild for any politician who's against niggers. Nobody can reason with Jimmy on the two subjects of niggers and politics."

James Earl Ray told his lawyer Percy Foreman that he did not have to be afraid of a death sentence for killing King, "(because) no white man has ever been executed in Tennessee for killing a n." It was only later that Ray realized that prosecutors would indeed push for the death sentence. Foreman persuaded Ray that the case was too big to rely on local prejudices and that he would be found guilty and executed.

Ray's racist sentiments were confirmed when his papers, including 400 letters to his brothers written between 1969 and 1997, were acquired by Boston University in 2000. In none of the letters did Ray confess to the murder of King. However, the letters reveal a startling lack of empathy with the slain civil-rights leader. It was the central event in Ray's life, yet whenever he mentioned King it was only in the context of his attempts to get a new trial. The letters revealed his bigotry and hatred for African-Americans. They also show how he became a fan of an all-night "Whitepower" radio station. Among his papers is a newspaper clip that chronicles the rise of racist politicians David Duke and J.B Stoner, who figure prominently in the letters. Stoner's letters to Ray conclude "With Best Racist Wishes." In one letter Ray gave Stoner legal advice on how to escape culpability for a racist bombing. It didn't prevent the rabid racist from finally being brought to justice for his crimes.

The "Illogical" Conspiracy

Conspiracy buffs have, for years, pointed to the fact that Ray secured false passports to enable him to flee the country. They have determined that the assassin must have received assistance in obtaining the passports from a sophisticated group of conspirators, most likely the government. However, the process of obtaining false identity documentation in the 1960s was not difficult.

Following the abandonment of the getaway car in Atlanta, Ray made his way to Toronto where he easily obtained a passport – in much the same way many U.S. fugitives obtained their false passports. Canadian bureaucracy at the time made it easy to obtain a false birth certificate and the travel agencies there did all the work in obtaining passports for their customers. An appearance before a government official was not a requirement.

Ray's movements following the assassination also leave no room for sinister interpretation. He flew to London's Heathrow Airport, then immediately caught a flight to Lisbon. It was an attempt to find a mercenary organization and safe passage to southern Africa. But he was running out of money and thought it would be easier to commit robberies in London where he could speak the language, so he returned. A phone call to a London reporter gave him the information that mercenary groups were established in Brussels. He made his way to the airport but the FBI had, by now, discovered the truth about Ray's movements and the issue of a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd. The FBI tipped off Scotland Yard, which issued an all-points-bulletin for police and customs officers to be on the alert for Ray. Ray was arrested before he could board his flight to Brussels.

From the start Ray adopted an improvisational approach to his alibi. When researchers discovered new information that purportedly supported Ray, he would change his story to accommodate the new possibilities. There is no evidence that Ray met with a mysterious Raoul or had any conspiratorial contact with anyone except his family following his escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary.

It was evident that Ray was able to convince himself that he had a plausible case to make. In 1959 Ray had told an arresting police officer, "I cannot deny it and I won't admit it." During the late 1970s his lawyer, Mark Lane, had put in Ray's mind the difference between "truth" and "legal truth." Ray could therefore persuade himself that he was really innocent because the courts had not established the full circumstances of the crime. He knew that the assistance given to him by his brothers established, to his own satisfaction, a case for conspiracy. The state had not proven a conspiracy had existed therefore he had been telling the "truth." In fact Ray had been manipulating reality to suit his own version of the truth. This was the reason why the polygraph results were inconclusive when Ray answered questions about a conspiracy. The same polygraph examiner determined Ray had been lying when he denied killing King.

It is likely Ray's resolve in sticking to his story would have dissipated had it not been for the support he was given by conspiracy writers. According to Douglas and Anne Brinkley, who examined the prison letters Ray wrote over a period of 30 years, "Ray exploited the fact that foreign journalists with an anti-American sensibility had no trouble accepting his story that the White House and the FBI had ordered King's assassination."

For each and every fact about the King case that provides some suspicion, conspiracy writers are prone to deliver their own biased interpretation. Conspiracy writers who investigated Ray's finances, for example, concluded that Ray must have received funds from conspirators. They did not consider the possibility that Ray committed robberies during his time on the run or that he had made money in prison as a drug dealer. As his brother John told FBI agents, "(James never had) any real need for money as he was always able to pick it up by ways of burglaries or robberies during his travels." In all the states Ray traveled, following his escape from prison, the FBI carried out inquiries. There were numerous unsolved robberies of banks, stores, gas stations, and liquor stores. The FBI assassination investigation, however, did not consider robberies that had a value of less than $5,000.

There is a wealth of evidence, never presented by conspiracy advocates, that Ray was an habitual user of drugs and sold them to fellow inmates. From defenders and adversaries alike, Ray emerges from the FBI reports as a loner with few friends; a prisoner who was always devising some scheme to break out of prison; a schemer who was involved in various money-making ventures, including buying and selling amphetamines, and lending money to other prisoners. Ray's drug use was confirmed by a family friend of the Rays, his uncle, Jack Gawron. He told agents that he supplied Ray with inhalers, and that he believed Ray trafficked in amphetamines while in prison. Ray's fluctuating weight in prison added to the suspicions of investigators. Additional support that Ray was a drug user was discovered in the Scotland Yard files. In one of Ray's London rooming houses a hypodermic needle had been found.

Because Ray had proclaimed the existence of a conspiracy during his trial, it is far-fetched that conspirators would have allowed him to remain alive during the three decades he spent in prison prior to his death. There were simply too many risks attached to this scenario. If conspirators, especially government-led killers, could successfully murder America's foremost civil-rights leader and then cover up the circumstances surrounding the act, they would assuredly have had little problem in eliminating Ray. If Ray had indeed been aided by co-conspirators, they would have spirited him away and placed him in hiding as soon as the murder had been carried out. They would not have allowed him to be exposed so many times during his two months on the run. Conspirators would not have put themselves in jeopardy by allowing Ray the opportunity to identify fellow conspirators. And, if Ray had been an unwilling patsy, conspirators could not have been certain that Ray would flee the scene of the crime. Under these circumstances, had Ray stayed put, the whole conspiracy may have collapsed.

Why would the government employ so many people in the conspiracy when the risk of leakage would have been so much greater? Had President Johnson wanted to eliminate King all that was required was for him to request the CIA Director or private parties to arrange a contract and that would have been the end of it.

This was no sophisticated murder, as conspiracy advocates maintain. King was an easy target for any killer bent on eliminating him. King did not have an armed guard; he frequently left his home on foot; and his travel arrangements were well publicized. The government could also have destroyed King by simply arranging for all the scandal-filled surveillance tapes to be released to a friendly journalist to publicize them. This would not have been at all unusual. In the 1960s, the CIA enlisted the assistance of journalists and student groups to promote the government's policies.

What Really Happened?

When Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967 he knew that if he continued with his lifetime career of robbing banks it would guarantee a return to prison sooner or later. The porno business or drug smuggling he discussed with his brothers seemed to offer great financial rewards. Ray abandoned the idea, likely realizing he didn't have the skills or contacts required for those criminal enterprises. He would also risk exposure. Feeling trapped and nowhere else to go, he decided to return to his long held idea of the big score.

From the accumulated evidence in the case it can be concluded that Ray believed the bounty on King was genuine, although there is no credible evidence that he made arrangements to collect it prior to or following the assassination. It is reasonable to assume that Ray may have wanted to collect whatever money was on offer through his brothers, at some future date. It is also plausible Ray took photographs of the crime scene as proof he had murdered King. However, as Ray admitted, he threw the camera equipment away, probably in a state of panic, as he fled Memphis. Ray's plan was to go to a country that did not have extradition arrangements with the United States. Perhaps at some date in the future a President George Wallace would pardon him.

It is also clear that Ray's actions were not predicated on the provision of a bounty. Ray knew that his crime was of such overwhelming proportions that publicity generated by the murder would never die, especially in a country like the United States that makes celebrities of famous murderers. He was also fully aware that the killers of civil-rights workers Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo had been treated leniently by Southern courts. Book, magazine, and television contracts would always be on offer to pay for defense lawyers and financial provision for his brothers. If he had been lucky enough to escape to a foreign country, he could have sold his story. He would also have been aware that racist right-wing organizations and a large body of American public opinion would be behind him.

He told fellow inmates about the big score, aware that his burglaries, bank robberies, and petty crimes had amounted to little. Psychologically, James Earl Ray wanted to become what his parents had always known -- he was the child who was smarter and more resourceful than the rest. But he had chosen a life where success is not measured by conventional standards. Success to Ray was attaining respect from his peers, the criminal fraternity, making the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. And, contrary to ideas held by some conspiracy advocates, Ray had nerves of steel, especially when amphetamines hyped him up. According to his brother John, "(James has) steel nerves -- he just walks in (to the bank) like it's an everyday thing, gets the money, and walks out."

Stalking and then killing King would give him the status he craved and, if caught, he could enjoy the high esteem that goes with this type of crime. Believing that if he killed King in the Deep South a white jury would acquit him, Ray knew that in time he would be able to collect his reward if not as a free man then certainly through his brothers.

Ray had practiced deception all his life. A psychiatrist employed by the Missouri State prison system had been convinced that Ray was capable of murder. Rather than the bumbling crook he is portrayed by his defenders, Ray was instead, cunning, crafty, and manipulative. Ray's ex-wife, Anna Sandhu, recognized these qualities. Some of his lawyers have spoken of how Ray would manipulate them. He was an astute jailhouse lawyer who had spent years learning the fine points of the law, especially with respect to appeals procedure and how the law applied to the lawyer/client relationship. He knew how to keep his hopes for freedom alive. These realities are consistent with Ray's cryptic reply to Dexter King in 1997 when the civil rights leader's son asked him if he had killed his father - "No, I didn't, no, no, but sometimes you have to make your own evaluation and maybe come to that conclusion. I think that could be done today, but not 30 years ago."

In the real world accusation without confirmation is worthless. During his trial, Ray knew he had introduced enough doubt as to stimulate future public examinations of his case. He knew the idea of conspiracy would keep his case alive in the public eye. Had there not been a climate of conspiratorial thinking engendered by the public doubt about Lee Harvey Oswald's guilt, it is unlikely the King case would have been intensely scrutinized for the past 30 years. And keeping the real truth about the assassination hidden would not have been difficult for a man like Ray. He had always been a loner who never fully revealed himself to anyone -- not his brothers, his family, his fellow prisoners, his acquaintances or his lawyers.

It is unlikely the factual evidence about the King murder case will persuade the American public of Ray's guilt. American society has been influenced too much by the conspiracy theorists' world-view and the sub-text that underlies the promotion of conspiracy stories that are predicated on disillusionment with the institutions of American government. In 1963, 75 percent of the American population trusted the federal government. Today that figure has diminished to 25 percent.

Ray served his sentence in Tennessee prisons, mixing with the inmate population, working on his appeals, and staying in contact with his brothers. The end came nearly 30 years after the King murder when he succumbed to liver disease. He had been admitted to Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital, his 16th hospitalisation since December 1996. Ray was stabbed more than 20 times by four inmates at Brushy Mountain Prison in 1981, and he may have developed hepatitis from a blood transfusion.

The death of James Earl Ray in 1998 added to the discontent and dissatisfaction many people felt at the many attempts to establish the whole truth about the King killing. Ray left no deathbed confession nor did he retract the numerous claims he made about the mysterious Raoul. By keeping silent, Ray was effectively thumbing his nose at a society that had relegated him to the bottom of the heap.

Government files on the King slaying are sealed until 2029. Opening these documents will only reveal why investigators have been so convinced of Ray's guilt and why they have always rejected a wider conspiracy. Obfuscation, manipulation, lies, greed, and distortion of the facts have characterized this case, allowing Ray to escape blame. The truth of the matter is that Ray murdered King and he acted alone when he shot him, but one or both of his brothers before and/or after the fact possibly aided him. As Anna Ray, the assassin's wife, told television talk-show host Geraldo Rivera in the 1990s, "(James told me) ‘Yeah I did it, so what'?…James will never admit to the killing again – he'll carry his secret to the grave. He's created a mystique by recanting his original confession. He doesn't want to go down in history as the killer of Martin Luther King Jr., so he'll deny it to his death."

The New York Times did carry one story on April 4 about Martin Luther King - sort of. Buried deep in the paper, the Times reported the following "news": the autopsy videotape of King's assassin, James Earl Ray, is for sale.

Ray's brother, Jerry Ray, is selling the taped autopsy of his brother - some two hours long - for $400,000. With an eye to gruesome irony, Jerry Ray even made his sales pitch for the tape on the anniversary of King's death - while standing near the site of King's assassination.


"MLK Jr.: The Killing, The Family

Despite recent court findings, the conspiracy theory is not credible."

By Gerald Posner

Monday, December 13, 1999; Page A25

Last week the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated a favorable Memphis jury verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit against Loyd Jowers, a man the Kings charge was part of a conspiracy behind the 1968 murder of the civil rights leader. To those unfamiliar with the case, the verdict seemed an important culmination of a long effort by the King family to determine who was behind the assassination. But to others who have followed the case, the Memphis trial was not about seeking the truth but a ploy to obtain a judicial sanction for a convoluted conspiracy theory embraced by the King family.

How did the King family end up in a courtroom -- represented by the attorney for the case's confessed assassin, James Earl Ray -- suing Jowers, a man considered to lack credibility by every local, state and federal prosecutor who has looked at the matter?

This trial had its genesis in a 1993 television interview given by Jowers, the owner of a bar and grill next to the flophouse from which King's assassin fired the fatal shot. Jowers said that at the request of a local produce dealer he had hired the assassin. Subsequently, he refused to say much more unless he was granted immunity.

Fast-forward two years, and Jowers's story -- still unsupported by any independent evidence -- became a linchpin in a book -- "Orders to Kill" -- by William Pepper, the latest lawyer for the assassin. Pepper's book set forth a mammoth conspiracy theory involving the White House, the CIA, the FBI, Canadian and British intelligence, the Memphis police, military intelligence, Green Berets, the National Guard and the Mafia. It might have become a humorous footnote to the assassination if it had not caught the attention of the King family, particularly King's younger son, Dexter. The family quickly was persuaded that Pepper's theory was right.

It was Pepper who persuaded Dexter King to make his highly publicized March 1997 prison visit to James Earl Ray, a meeting at which Dexter embraced Ray and announced that he and his family believed Ray's claim of innocence.

The King family's involvement, and their repeated calls for a new investigation, prompted the Memphis prosecutors to reopen the case. The conclusions of the prosecutors' two-year probe were released in a 1998 report: Ray was the assassin, and there was no larger conspiracy.

As for Jowers's claim, the district attorney not only dismissed it as false -- pointing out many inconsistent changes in his story over time -- but determined that Jowers's most likely motivation was cashing in on a lucrative Hollywood sale. As part of the investigation, the district attorney also developed overwhelming evidence that invalidated almost every claim Pepper had advanced in his book.

Those official results, however, did not dissuade the Kings from investing their faith in Pepper's and Jowers's tale. When Ray died in March 1998, Pepper and the Kings looked for other ways to keep their theory alive. The family already had sold the film rights on King's life and death to film director Oliver Stone, whose "JFK" embraced a similarly widespread government murder plot. But the Kings wanted something separate from Stone's project. Although they demanded, and received, a new federal investigation into the case (which is still underway), they also sued Loyd Jowers for wrongful death. Their lawyer was none other than Pepper.

The civil standard is only a "preponderance of the evidence" as opposed to the more stringent "beyond a reasonable doubt" of a criminal trial. And in the four-week trial that just finished in Memphis, Pepper had a field day. With a hands-off judge who allowed almost everything to come into the record, coupled with an astonishingly lethargic defense offered by Jowers, Pepper essentially had an uncontested month to argue the theory set forth in his book.

At times, the proceedings bordered on the absurd. The case's "ballistics expert," who testified that the rifle bought by Ray could not have been the murder weapon, was none other than Judge Joe Brown, the syndicated television jurist. His qualifications? He had been the judge who presided over James Earl Ray's final legal machinations and is evidently an avid hunter with a large collection of rifles.

At other points, "trial testimony" from television mock trials was introduced as though it had the weight of authentic sworn courtroom testimony. And during all of this, the man being sued, Loyd Jowers, never took the stand, claiming that he was too ill. His lawyer, Lewis Garrison, incredibly told the jury that his client was indeed part of a conspiracy, albeit a small cog.

Little wonder that the jury deliberated for only an hour before rubber-stamping a conspiracy theory that had been presented unchallenged. After the verdict, a jubilant Dexter King told reporters, "This is the period at the end of the sentence. . . . This is the end of it."

Dexter King is wrong. The verdict in Memphis is not the end of anything. But since the trial was not a search for the truth but rather a cynical scheme to give some official sanction to the discredited theory that the Kings enthusiastically endorse, it means little for history. It will not ultimately change the official view that James Earl Ray was the assassin. Rather, the persistent effort of the Kings to help Pepper exonerate Ray and to charge instead that much of the federal government killed Dr. King, will only diminish their standing as the first family of civil rights and permanently damage their credibility.

The writer is the author of "Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr."

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