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Death of James Earl Ray Leaves Unanswered Questions

by Bill Johnson

on question of who shot Martin Luther King Jr.
(AR) -- The death of James Earl Ray, the once-admitted and oft-denied killer of Martin Luther King Jr., leaves an unfinished page in the violent history of America's 20th Century.

It seems unlikely now that anyone will ever be able to answer definitively whether Ray, acting alone, fired the shot that killed King on the balcony of a Memphis motel more than 31 years ago. Ray admitted the shooting in a half-day trial -- and almost immediately recanted his confession.

The oddest twist came recently when members of King's family said they now believed Ray was an innocent pawn and that he should be granted a new trial.

King's son, Dexter King, met last year with Ray in the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Tennessee, where Ray was serving a 99-year term for the slaying.

Dexter King told Ray that it was "important for myself and my family to reach out firsthand and for all time's sake have this opportunity. I want to ask for the record: did you kill my father?"

"No, I didn't," Ray said. "No, no."

"As awkward as it may seem, I believe you and my family believes you, and we will do everything in our power to see you prevail," Dexter King replied.

Corretta King, the widow of the slain civil rights leater, later said she was joining Ray in his attempt to gain a new trial.

Ray died at about 6:10 a.m. EST Thursday afternoon after battling a worsening liver condition. He had been refused permission to seek a transplant in another state after Tennessee hospitals turned him down because of his age.

Recalling April 4, 1968
It was warm and humid evening in Memphis that April 4, 1968, when King stepped from his second-floor room to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel to discuss dinner plans. One shot rang out, and King fell, mortally wounded.

The motel's parking lot was flooded immediately by uniformed and plain-clothed police who had been keeping a vigil on King and his entourage. King was in Memphis to lend his support to the city's garbage collectors, most of them black, who were on strike against the city.

A famous photograph of King's aides immediately after the shooting shows several of them pointing across the street. Everyone agrees the shot came from across the street, but prosecutors say it came from a second-story window of a boarding house while others argue it came from a brushy vacant lot below the boarding house.

Ironically, the brush in that lot was chopped down the next day. Police officials said the lot was cleared to make their search easier.

King had been in Memphis several weeks earlier, when a march he led erupted into violence as young blacks began breaking out the plate-glass windows of stores along the march route. King, who consistently counseled nonviolence, was hustled into a car, which quickly sped him from the scene.

King promised he would return, and promised that the next march he led would be non-violent.

Almost immediately the police radio crackled with calls to search for a white Mustang
At the time, I was the Associated Press correspondent in Memphis and was covering the march, as I had covered other aspects of the civil rights struggle. I was within a few feet of King when the noise of breaking glass was heard, and King's expression seemed to be a mixture of disbelief and concern.

A few minutes later, I was in an outdoor telephone booth dictating a story to the AP. I had to cut the dictation short as a group of black youths began upsetting the booth.

I had left the Lorraine Motel about 10 minutes before the shooting after being told by King's aides that he would not come out until it was time to go to the church for the evening rally. But King did come out, to receive that dinner invitation from a Memphis friend.

AP photographer Charley Kelly and I had been cruising various parts of Memphis the previous evening in an attempt to gauge sentiment before King's appearance at the rally. We both expressed concern at a "strange feeling" we had, a feeling that something was not quite right. We stopped at a telephone booth and called our AP superiors to ask that additional reporters and photographers be sent it.

I left the Lorraine to go to a downtown motel about a half-mile away to greet AP reporter Jay Bowles, who had been sent to Memphis in response to my telephone call. It was there that we got the flash that King had been shot.

From then on, the events of the evening would lead to years of questions.

Almost immediately after the shooting, the police radio crackled with calls to search for a white Mustang. Police efforts were concentrated in a direction that later information would show was virtually opposite from the route allegedly traveled by Ray.

Among the evidence stipulated to is an allegation that Ray purchased a white Mustang on Aug. 30, 1967, while living as Eric Starvo Galt in a rented room in Birmingham, Ala. Police said Ray, who was registered at New Rebel Motel in Memphis just before the shooting, also rented room 5B in the rooming house run by Mrs. Bessie Brewer at 422 S. Main St.

That rooming house was one of the final stops for people on their way down, or at the bottom. It reeked of urine and one of the prosecution's chief witnesses who put Ray at the scene was an admitted alcoholic who said he stayed drunk most of the time.

Prosecutors said Ray use the name Eric. S. Galt in registering at the motel and the name John Willard at the rooming house.

According to police, Ray parked the car on South Main Street near the rooming house. They said he went into the second-floor bathroom, which overlooks the Lorraine Motel, and stood in the bathtub, resting the rifle on the window sill.

The tub in that bathroom was old and coated with rust stains. Police technicians said they found definite marks on the window sill made by the rifle.

As soon as the shot was fired, police said, Ray raced from the bathroom, down the stairs and out onto the street, dumping the rifle and other personal belongings at the entry way of Canipe's, a nearby store.

Police quickly recovered a 30-06 rifle wrapped in a green and brown bedspread from the store entrance. Also found, police said, was a blue zipper bag containing items authorities said were traced to Ray, including Bushnell binoculars he allegedly bought earlier in the day at York Arms Co. in Memphis and a shaving kit bought at a Memphis drug store.

Also found was a radio police said Ray had purchased while in the Missouri prison.

Just days later, Ray recanted
Ray was arrested June 8, 1968, at Heathrow Airport in London as he was preparing to go to Brussels, and was returned to the United States. Ray, wearing a bulletproof vest, was whisked into the Shelby County Jail in Memphis early one morning a few days later while reporters and photographers were kept behind barricades across the street.

Ray's 1969 trial, which most observers believed would go on some time, turned out to be a sort of anticlimax. His guilty plea was entered in exchange for a 99-year sentence and it was all over in a matter of hours after the prosecutor recited the evidence the state would have presented.

The judge had laid down strict rules, saying that no one would be allowed to leave until there was a recess. And once out, the judge said, you were out to stay.

After Ray's guilty plea was entered, the judge called a brief recess to give the reporters time to write notes to send down to their colleagues in the press room. I scribbled out that Ray had entered the guilty plea in exchange for the prison term and prayed that it would reach my AP colleague quickly.

Just days later, Ray recanted in a letter to Judge W. Preston Battle. He asked for a new trial.

Battle died of a heart attack five days later, before he could rule on Ray's request, a development his lawyers maintain required that a new trial be granted automatically.

Prosecutors contended that Battle's successor properly considered Ray's request before denying it.

It was at that time that Ray first brought up the name of Raul, a super-secret person Ray said was behind the assassination. The state insists there never was such a person.

Last Sept. 18, Tennessee Judge Cheryl Blackburn turned down Ray's request for a new trial and to be freed so he could pursue a liver transplant in another state. She said Ray's lawyers failed to produce evidence that his guilty plea should be set aside.

"You haven't shown me any proof and you told me you don't have any proof," she said.

Ray escaped from a Missouri prison on April 23, 1967. He was never more than a bumbling, smalltime criminal always short of money -- which made many people wonder how he could have planned and carried out such an ambitious crime and where he got the money to finance the trips he made in the less that one year between the time he escaped and when he was captured in England.

Prosecutors, in the stipulation they read, contended that before the killing Ray had traveled to and lived in Winnetka, Ill.; Montreal, Canada; Birmingham, Ala.; Mexico; Los Angeles; New Orleans and Atlanta.

Along the way, prosecutors said, he bought suits from tailors in Montreal; rented a safe deposit box in Birmingham; bought a rifle; took dancing lessons in Long Beach, Calif.; attended bartending school in Los Angeles and had plastic surgery on his nose in Hollywood.

Their itinerary lists only one job Ray held during that time. Prosecutors say Ray, using the name John L. Rayns, worked from May 3 to June 24, 1967, at the Indian Trail Restaurant, Winnetka, Ill.

"New evidence renders the state's case a complete shambles"
There have been many theories about where Ray got his money. Some believe he was financed by wealthy southerners who wanted to get rid of the biggest threat to segregation. Others, in a scenario that would be echoed years later after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, contended that King was the victim of a government plot, possibly hatched by the FBI or the CIA.

It is known that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover not only watched King every minute of the day, but bugged his rooms at motels and hotels and had informants who relayed what King was up to.

In addition to believing that King was a threat to the national status quo, Hoover reportedly was irate that King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

King's widow has said the FBI sent her copies of some of the tapes that allegedly showed King was involved in assignations with other women.

Some theorists say the CIA could have been involved because Hoover probably passed on his beliefs that King was a tool of the communists.

There have been reports over the years that black firefighters and police officers who had been stationed near the Lorraine Motel were transferred elsewhere the day before the shooting. The city has denied this happened.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations decided King was killed as part of a St. Louis-based racist conspiracy. The committee said it believed that Ray may have killed King to collect the bounty put up by those involved in the conspiracy.

Some critics have claimed that the only thing the committee really decided was that the FBI and CIA were not involved.

William F. Pepper, who later became Ray's lawyer, says Ray was coerced into pleading guilty after secret negotiations among his lawyer, Percy Foreman, the judge and the Shelby County district attorney general.

Pepper insisted that should Ray be granted a new trial, he has "massive new evidence" that would prove his innocence. First off, Pepper said, he had evidence the assassination was the result of a New Orleans Mafia contract coordinated with a man -- now dead -- he alleges was the Mafia's Memphis associate.

Pepper also says he has proof the fatal shot was fired from the brushy area behind a restaurant and that Raul provided the restaurant manager with both detailed instructions for the killing and the rifle that was used. The rifle ended up in the restaurant after the shot was fired, Pepper says.

Pepper also said he has been able to determine the existence and identity of Raul.

"The new evidence renders the state's case a complete shambles," Pepper insists. As for a new trial, he says: "Truth and justice require nothing less."

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Albion Monitor April 24, 1998 (

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