Who Shot Martin Luther King?
Why it’s ludicrous to put all the blame on unsophisticated, doomed James Earl Ray
By J. J. Maloney
As 69-year-old James Earl Ray wastes away in a Tennessee prison–suffering from terminal liver disease–even the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argues that he should be allowed a trial on whether he killed the Nobel Prize winning civil-rights leader. The latest furor in the case came last week when Shelby County Judge Joe Brown ruled that 12 of 18 test bullets fired recently through the rifle long thought to be the murder weapon had markings different from the markings on the bullet that killed Dr. King.
The rifle tested was the rifle that was found near the murder scene, within minutes of the shooting, with Ray’s fingerprint on it. It has long been alleged, by Ray and many others, that the rifle was planted and that Ray was just a “patsy” in the conspiracy to kill Dr. King. These test results support that contention.
One expert argued that the defense should be allowed to clean the rifle’s bore, because there was evidence of “bubbling” on the test bullets–which could be caused by a buildup of lead or copper from previous test firings. The government argues that cleaning the rifle’s bore could destroy evidence–even though no expert has ever been able to say that the fatal bullet was fired from this rifle.
In last month’s proceeding the fatal bullet was described as fragmented and deformed to such a degree that no ballistic comparison is possible.
However, in the late 1970s, when I interviewed Arthur Hanes and Bernard Fensterward, former attorneys for James Earl Ray (Hanes is also a former FBI agent), they both said they had held the fatal bullet, that it was in good shape and should be more than suitable for ballistics comparison. In act, when Ray entered his guilty plea, in 1969, the prosecutor told the jury that, had the case gone to trial, he would have introduced ballistics evidence linking the fatal bullet to the 30.06 rifle with Ray’s fingerprint on it.
Even that fingerprint is in question, however. The first book on the King case, The Strange Case of James Earl Ray, by Clay Blair, said it took the FBI’s fingerprint section two weeks to identify the fingerprint – even though it was comparing the print against only 720 sets of prints. That would indicate a fingerprint of dubious quality. These types of questions are more troubling because the House Select Committee on Assassinations, after releasing its report on the case in 1979, immediately sealed all of the evidence it had, including all of the test bullets, for 50 years.
Ray had purchased the rifle days before the killing. If only one bullet had ever been fired through it, then the test bullets fired in 1968 would be the best bullets for use in comparison. We do not know how many bullets were fired in 1978. The more times a rifle is fired, however, the more wear and tear there will be inside the barrel, and this can change the markings left on a bullet.
HSCA didn’t seal the evidence for the benefit of the King family – they’ve been after the truth since the day King was murdered. Nor was it sealed for the benefit of Ray – he’s been denying his guilt since March 13, 1969, three days after he pled guilty to the murder. Ray claims he was coerced into pleading guilty by his lawyer, Percy Foreman, who convinced him it would be suicide to go to trial. (Ray had also signed a contract with Foreman, giving him a piece of any book by Ray, as a way of paying legal fees – he had the same arrangement with Arthur Hanes, whom he fired after four months. Such a book was obviously worth more if Ray were convicted.)
Ray’s plea of guilty was a bitter disappointment to many people, who felt that without a trial–where witnesses could be subpoenaed to testify–that the truth of who and what was behind the assassination would never be known. In fact, the day after Ray pled guilty, The New York Times wrote a blistering editorial denouncing the plea, and the fact that there would be no public trial where the facts could be brought out. The 1978 HSCA investigation was supposed to answer the countless questions surrounding the death of Dr. King–not the least of which was whether FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, or anyone else in the federal government, had a hand in his killing. While at first this suggestion might seem ludicrous, Hoover had in fact developed a deep hatred for King. Hoover was certainly not alone.
J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI for 48 years until his death in 1972. In the years following his death, Hoover has been widely demonized–to the point of being characterized as a closet drag queen who sold his soul to the Mafia because it had photographs of him in drag. These efforts to turn Hoover into a cartoon character trivialize him, and make him seem less formidable than he really was. Hoover was the most powerful man in America for decades.
He built the modern FBI. And, while social activists dwell on COINTELPRO, and the other evils perpetrated by Hoover, it was his FBI that prevented even one act of sabotage from being perpetrated on American soil during World War II (even though the Germans landed a dozen saboteurs on the East Coast). To millions of people Hoover was a hero–still is.
Hoover at all times was Machiavellian. For decades he outmaneuvered his political enemies, which included more than one president of the United States. (Nixon is on tape saying that if he fired Hoover, Hoover would ” bring down the temple,” including the presidency.) The source of Hoover’s power was information. He compiled dossiers on the drinking, sex and gambling habits of many thousands of prominent Americans. Writers, actors, musicians, ministers, politicians–anyone with a public following was fair game. Hoover’s agents not only cultivated armies of informers, but used illegal wiretapping to gather information on the more prominent targets.
From the end of World War II until Hoover’s death his great crusade was fighting communism. In fact it was during World War II–when America’s intelligence focus was on Germany and Japan–that Hoover received an anonymous letter, warning him that a particular Soviet official was a double-agent. On no more than that, Hoover turned the guns of intelligence on Russia. History proves that was the right decision (although it was later determined the Russian official in question was not a double agent).
After World War II, Russia developed an atom bomb. The Rosenbergs were charged with divulging top atomic secrets to the Soviets, tried for treason, convicted and executed. Communism was a real threat, and hundreds of prominent Americans were willingly feeding information to Hoover, including the head of the Screen Actors Guild by the name of Ronald Reagan.
Among those prominent Americans was Thurgood Marshall, general counsel of the NAACP. Marshall, who in 1967 became the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, first came to FBI attention in the 1940s when he was a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild, a group suspected by some of being a communist front. Marshall often complained that the FBI failed to investigate attacks on blacks, including lynchings. However, in 1952, Marshall contacted Louis B. Nichols, assistant to Hoover, saying he was worried that the Communist Party was trying to infiltrate the NAACP and “forge to the forefront.”
This dovetailed with a fear of Hoover and many others that the millions of blacks in America were ripe for recruitment by foreign agents, who would then use them to foment unrest and civil disorder across the United States.
It was not an unreasonable fear. In the early 1950s, blacks were strictly segregated across the nation. They were called “niggers” and they were treated as such. They could not eat in white restaurants, use white restrooms or public drinking fountains. Merely looking at a white woman could–and sometimes did–get a black man killed. Even the bigots, and Hoover was one, understood that a lifetime of humiliation, being forced into ghettos, and exploitation at every level, left the black population of America a bit cynical about the attainability of The American Dream. Racism in the Northern states was bad, but in the South it was virulent. Although downplayed by the FBI, the KKK was still a powerful force in the deep South (along with even more extreme white supremacist groups, such as J.B. Stoner’s National State’s Rights Party, which was so extreme it was publicly disavowed by the KKK).
Into this picture, then, burst the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. General unrest over the Vietnam War created a social climate conducive to change.
The U.S. military buildup in Vietnam began in 1961. In early 1963 King led the month-long demonstrations in Birmingham, establishing himself as a national leader among the black population. His preparations for Birmingham were monitored by Army Intelligence. On Aug. 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U.S. Destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, resulting in a Congressional resolution allowing President Johnson to provide military assistance to Vietnam. A second attack by North Vietnam allegedly occurred on Aug. 4, resulting in U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. In 1965 the first U.S. combat troops shipped out to Vietnam.
By early 1967 we were a nation divided on the war, but coming together on many other fronts. There was widespread resistance to the draft. Children from affluent families – or families with an influential friend (ala Bill Clinton) frequently avoided the draft, but the poor were in the front of the line, and no one was poorer or more disenfranchised than black youths. The issue wasn’t cowardice, as so many conservatives wish to pretend–the issue was fighting in and dying in a war that had no moral underpinning. In 1993 the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, following a 16-month investigation, revealed that by 1963 Army Intelligence considered King a threat to the country’s security. Dr. King wasn’t the first member of his family to bear such scrutiny.
The Army began watching King’s maternal grandfather, Rev. A.D. Williams, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in September, 1917. When King’s father, Rev. M.L. King, Sr., became pastor of the same church, the Army started watching him, too. In 1947, while still a college student, King himself became the target of government spies and informers. The Army, beginning in 1917, feared that the black population was ripe for subversion by foreign interests, so they tried to keep its pulse on that community. A lot of the spying was done by black informers.
In the case of King, however, the Army (and the FBI) went high-tech. In early 1963 King led a march in Birmingham that resulted in widespread arrests of marchers over a month-long period. Maj. Gen. Charles Billingslea, commander of the 2nd Division, sent a plea for help to his superiors, saying he feared a full-scale revolt in Birmingham. President John F. Kennedy ordered an additional 3,000 troops into the area. It was with the Birmingham disturbances that the Army began to use a U-2 spy plane to keep tabs on Dr. King. By 1967 Maj. Gen. William P. Yarborough, of Army intelligence, was convinced the communists were bankrolling Dr. King. Yarborough was relying on information from the Mexican minister of national defense, to the effect that black militants were receiving training and funding from the Havana-based Organization of Latin American Solidarity.
By 1967, the U.S. government feared King. His speeches in the United States were affecting black troop morale in Vietnam. He had announced he would lead a massive march on Washington the following spring. The government’s ultimate fear was that King, the apostle of non-violence, would ask the black soldiers in Vietnam to lay down their arms. Once college students became galvanized against the war, they reached out to black people, Native-Americans, Mexican-Americans, even convicts. In that context Martin Luther King loomed large as a moral figure. As a recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (1964), he also had international stature.
The FBI’s answer to this cauldron of dissent, widely perceived as endangering America’s ability to effectively wage war, was COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). The purpose of COINTELPRO was to destabilize radical groups, which included the American-Indian Movement, Black Panthers, white hate groups (however, they also enlisted the aid of white supremacists in countering black activists), the New Left, etc. The FBI generated a large file on Cesar Chavez, head of the National Farm Workers Association.
The FBI shadowed Chavez, because of unfounded rumors that he may be a communist, and enlisted the aid of military intelligence, local police and the Secret Service–without ever finding a shred of proof to substantiate its suspicions. (In 1994 Clinton awarded Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously and described him as a “Moses figure.”)
While Chavez was viewed with deep suspicion by the FBI, Dr. King was viewed as the enemy. Under COINTELPRO, the FBI used a wide variety of methods to discredit people –including forged documents, false arrests, pamphlets–and it is known that white supremacists were enlisted in the fight against black organizations. COINTELPRO was approved in Washington but operated at the local FBI office level. The FBI was itself a racist organization. (Just a few years ago, African-Americans accounted for only 5 percent of FBI agents, an underrepresentation that caused them to file a class-action discrimination suit against the Bureau, which included allegations of pernicious discrimination in promotions, assignments, etc.)
By late 1967, at FBI field offices in the South, there were white agents enlisting the aid of white supremacists to try to neutralize black activists. The key target was Dr. King. It is common knowledge that the FBI used wiretaps on King (approved by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who would later express regret for signing the wiretap authorization). The most infamous recording involves King making love to a woman in a hotel room–a tape that Hoover enjoyed sharing.
James Earl Ray
I first met James Earl Ray in early 1960. I had arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on February 8, 1960, and Ray arrived shortly afterward. We didn’t have much in common: I was 19 years old, and serving four life sentences for murder and armed robbery, and Ray was 32 and serving 20 years for armed robbery. We knew some of the same people. I was born and raised in South St. Louis, an ethnic neighborhood that Ray had moved to from a small town. In September, 1961, I tried to escape from Jefferson City, and Ray tried to escape several months later. We spent approximately four months in E-Hall (solitary) together without ever speaking to each other.
Ray was a low-key guy. He was considered a solid convict. He minded his own business and kept his mouth shut. For a while he ran a magazine stand on the yard (renting out magazines like Argosy, True Detective, etc.), from which he made enough money to get by, since he didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. In 1963 I became friends with Jerry Davis, and through him with Rollie Laster and Ronnie Westberg. Those three had taken some guards hostage in 1959, in a failed escape attempt, and Laster and Davis were shot. At that time, there were only a dozen men in the prison who had ever tried to escape from inside the walls, so it created a small fraternity. Ray didn’t run around with us, but he and Westberg liked each other, and Westberg would talk about him from time to time.
In late 1966 Westberg discovered a way to escape from Jefferson City. The prison bakery also baked bread for Renz Farm and Church Farm, delivering the bread via pickup truck to these nearby satellite institutions in a four-foot square box. Westberg’s problem, however, was that he was viewed as such an extreme security risk by the guards that it was impossible for him to be absent for more than a few minutes without the guards looking for him. Had he disappeared for 15 or 20 minutes, the guards would have shut the prison down.
Ray, although having tried to escape twice, had a generally good conduct record except for the escapes. The guards did not view him as a dangerous convict–nor did they take him very seriously as an escape risk (the first time he fell off the wall and knocked himself out, the second time, in March of 1966, he was found hiding in a ventilation shaft in one of the factories).
On April 23, 1967, Ray climbed into the bread box, another convict covered him with a tray of bread, and he successfully escaped from Jefferson City. The prison officials were so convinced that he was hiding in the prison that they did not turn in a general alarm until several days later. Ray’s brother, John Larry Ray, was waiting in a car, picked Ray up and drove him to South St. Louis. John Ray owned a tavern in South St. Louis that faced Benton Park. The tavern was a local gathering place for George Wallace supporters. From St. Louis, Ray went to Chicago, where his other brother, Jerry Ray, was living. Jerry Ray is known to have assisted James Earl Ray during this Chicago period.
The Ray brothers have frequently lied since the assassination of Dr. King. At one point Jerry Ray was accusing author Harold McMillan of lying, and McMillan was accusing Jerry Ray of lying. McMillan had been paying Jerry Ray for information and apparently got burned. In fact, McMillan quoted Jerry Ray in his book as saying, “What surprised me even tho you are a liberal how I with a limited education could get a fee from you without telling you anything and making up all that bull.”
On the other hand, it is McMillan who is mostly responsible for portraying Ray as a rabid racist. In his book, The Making Of An Assassin, published in 1976, McMillan wrote: “In 1963 and 1964, Martin Luther King was on TV almost every day talking defiantly about how black people were going to get their rights, insisting they would accept with nonviolence all the terrible violence that white people were inflicting on them until the day of victory arrived, until they did overcome.
Ray watched it all avidly on the cellblock TV at Jeff City. He reacted as if King’s remarks were directed at him personally. He boiled when King came on the tube; he began to call him Martin ‘Lucifer’ King and Martin Luther ‘Coon.’ It got so that the very sight of King would galvanize Ray.”
That is utterly untrue. There were no cellblock TVs in Jefferson City while Ray was there. Three years after Ray escaped, they finally began to sell televisions to the convicts. I knew a lot of racists in Jefferson City, but James Earl Ray wasn’t one of them. Although McMillan’s book was gravely flawed, Time promoted the book heavily, and what McMillan wrote later permeated much of what was written about Ray.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King arrived in Memphis to support a strike by 1,300 sanitation workers. He would stay at the Lorraine Motel. Someone–it’ s never been determined who–identified himself as an advance man for King, and had the motel manager switch King’s room from the ground floor to the upper level. Everyone in King’s group later said there was no such advance man.
The following day, at 6:01 p.m., King stepped out on the balcony. He was speaking to a friend below him when a shot rang out and he fell mortally wounded. A famous photograph shows several persons pointing toward a rooming house about 80 yards away. The FBI would later say the fatal shot was fired from a second-floor bathroom window at the rear of the rooming house. Several minutes after the shooting, a bundle was discovered in a doorway at the front of the rooming house. It contained a Remington Gamemaster 30.06 rifle, with a fingerprint on it that would later be attributed to James Earl Ray, and a small plastic radio that was said to be purchased by Ray while he was in the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Earl Caldwell, then a reporter for the New York Times, was in his room on the ground floor of the Lorraine Motel when the shot was fired. He ran out of his room and saw a man crouching at ground level near the base of the apartment house. Caldwell was never interviewed by the FBI. Harold “Cornbread” Carter, a wino, said a man with a rifle walked right past him, to the edge of an embankment (exactly where Caldwell said he saw a man crouching), and that the man fired at the motel. The FBI dismissed Carter’s account. Two community-relations agents from the Justice Department were staying on the same level of the motel with King, and rushed out of their room when they heard the shot. They, also, were never interviewed by the FBI (even though these agents didn’t see anything, the fact they weren’t interviewed speaks volumes about the FBI’s “investigation.” )
The following day Roger Wilkins, then head of the Community Relations Service of the Justice Department, flew from Washington to Memphis with Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Cartha D. “Deke” DeLoach, assistant director of the FBI. DeLoach was already pushing the lone-gunman theory, although the FBI had no clue yet as to whom that lone gunman would be, or why Dr. King was killed. The murder of Dr. King set off nationwide rioting, including Kansas City. It is likely that Hoover was pushing a lone-gunman to avoid the even more intense rioting that a white conspiracy might generate. It would later be determined that Ray traveled from Memphis to Atlanta, then to Montreal, Canada, then to London, then to Portugal, then back to London where he was arrested at Heathrow Airport by Scotland Yard.
Shortly after Ray’s arrest, J.B. Stoner, head of the National States Rights Party, volunteered his services as Ray’s attorney. Several years later Jerry Ray served as Stoner’s campaign manager when Stoner ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia against Jimmy Carter. Jerry Ray shot a 17-year-old boy who broke into Stoner’s office, and served as Stoner’s bodyguard and chauffeur.
The federal government, and Tennessee authorities, aggressively pushed the lone-gunman theory–although this explanation was rejected out of hand by millions of Americans. At Ray’s sentencing, as the state was telling the jury what the evidence would have been at a trial, Ray interrupted the proceedings to say he did not agree with the statement of Ramsey Clark, U.S. attorney general, that there was no conspiracy. Three days later Ray tried to withdraw his plea of guilty, even though that would subject him to a possible death sentence. The court refused.
From that day forward there has been a tug-of-war between conspiracy believers and lone-gunman advocates. In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report saying there probably was a conspiracy, and that it originated in St. Louis, with a reward being offered for King’s death by two racists, one of whom was a patent lawyer. Both of these men were conveniently dead by 1978. It began with an informant telling the FBI in 1974 that Russell G. Byers claimed to have been offered $50,000 to kill King, but had turned the offer down. The FBI put that information in a memo and filed it away.
Byers, a high-profile thief, was the brother-in-law of John Paul Spica, who was convicted in the early 1960s of a hired killing in St. Louis County. For about a year, Spica was my cellmate, and we worked in the hospital together. Of the contract killing, Spica always denied doing it. He told me that the victim’s wife had approached him, offering him $5,000 to kill her husband, and Spica turned it down. However, when the man was killed, Spica went to the wife and said, “Well, I took care of that matter for you –where’ s my $5,000.” The woman, however, was smarter than Spica thought. She went to Capt. Pete Vasil, chief of detectives in St. Louis County, and told Vasil that she had approached Spica, but that she had later told him she changed her mind, but that Spica had ignored her wishes and killed the husband anyway. Spica, on the basis of her testimony, and a tape-recording of him asking her for $5,000, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The wife was acquitted and collected approximately $200,000 in insurance. Spica kept his sense of humor however, by complaining that, “I asked the bitch to send me the $5,000, and she won’t do it.”
In prison, Spica eventually got involved in selling drugs and other scams. One scam was to run off extra license plate stickers and smuggle them out of prison. Byers was involved in that. The prison officials finally caught on to it, but were unable to make a case against Spica. By 1978 Spica had made parole. That year Russell Byers was one of the key suspects in burglarizing the St. Louis Art Museum and stealing several valuable statuettes. Another suspect was Sam E. White. On June 6, 1978, White walked out of the FBI office in St. Louis and was found five days later shot to death in Madison County, Ill. Byers was never convicted of the art museum burglary, because two witnesses were murdered and another refused to testify. During this period, however, the FBI turned the memo about Byers being offered a bribe to kill King over to the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Conrad “Pete” Baetz, a deputy sheriff from Madison County, Ill., was serving as an investigator for HSCA. At the time of King’s death, Baetz had been in an Army intelligence unit that specialized in electronic surveillance. Baetz, and HSCA, latched onto the Byer’s story as though it were the holy grail. HSCA also subpoenaed Judge Murry Randall, who had been Byer’s attorney before being appointed to the St. Louis Circuit Court. Randall (whose brother, Alvin Randall, is retired from the Jackson County Circuit Court) desperately sought to evade appearing before HSCA. Randall sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, chairman of the committee, saying Byers was “one of the most dangerous criminals in this city.” However, once Randall began testifying, he made it clear that he thought Byers was lying, and that the “St. Louis Connection” to the King assassination lacked credibility.
Randall was certainly in a position to keep his finger on the pulse of the St. Louis underworld. As a lawyer Randall had been affiliated with the law firm of Morris Shenker, the most influential criminal lawyer in St. Louis history. A number of circuit and federal prosecutors, along with circuit and federal judges, were former members of the Shenker firm. Shenker had represented many gangsters, and was Jimmy Hoffa’s lawyer. Shenker would later borrow more than $100-million from the Teamsters, and bought the Dunes Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. After six years with the Shenker firm, Randall went into practice with Lawrence Lee, then a state senator from St. Louis. Lee, himself, was one of the more highly regarded criminal lawyers in St. Louis. Randall was also a good friend of Mark Hennelly, regarded as probably the best criminal trial lawyer in the city’s history. By the late 1970s, Hennelly was president of Missouri-Pacific Railroad.
In a conversation I had with Hennelly in 1977 he admitted to me that he was still friends with Tony Giardano, head of the St. Louis Mafia, and Jimmy Michaels, head of the Syrian mob in South St. Louis. All of this is to say that, once he’d been subpoenaed to testify, Randall had the contacts to find out whether a $50,000 reward to kill King had been floating around the St. Louis underworld. Randall told the committee that Byers had concocted the story about the bounty on King as a way of trying to pinpoint whether Richard O’Hara was an FBI snitch. Byers told that story to O’Hara–knowing that, if the FBI later asked him about the story, the only place it could have heard it would be from O’Hara. The FBI, however, figured out what Byers was doing, and never questioned him (until the memo was turned over to HSCA four years later).
Baetz, and HSCA, however, chose to believe Byers over Randall. Baetz later told The Riverfront Times in St. Louis: “Honestly, we believed Byers, and so did the committee. I think he told the truth. I don’t think he would have lied to us once he got to Washington.” That has to stand as either one of the most naive, or most disingenuous statements I’ve ever heard. The Riverfront Times questioned Baetz concerning his knowledge of Sam White, who was killed in Madison County–and Baetz said he’d never heard of White until The Riverfront Times brought up the name (even though White was allegedly killed by Byers, the witness on whom Baetz and HSCA based their findings.) When The Riverfront Times filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI, asking for the file on Sam White, the FBI said it had destroyed the file.
The New York Times bought into the Byers story, also. It published a story implying a Spica-Byers-Ray connection (strongly implying that Byers had told Spica about the reward, and that Spica then set it up for Ray to meet the money men). The Times reporters had sought me out, and I told them that it was an untenable proposition. Spica and Ray ran in completely different circles in Jefferson City. Had someone offered Spica $50,000 to kill King, he would have asked for half the money up front, then he would have told you to go sit on a fire hydrant. (Spica was killed by a car-bomb some years ago, over a union dispute.)
The statement by John Larry Ray, that James Earl Ray, after escaping, had hidden in East St. Louis, at a gambling joint owned by Frank “Buster” Wortman, is the fuel for current speculation that organized crime was involved in the King assassination. Buster Wortman ruled East St. Louis from the early 1940s to his death in 1968. My stepfather, Julius “Dutch” Gruender, was a close friend of Wortman’s. They had served time together in Leavenworth (before Wortman was transferred to Alcatraz), and Dutch had done time with Elmer Dowling, Wortman’s chief lieutenant (until he was murdered in the early 60s). I had known Wortman most of my life. His brother, Ted Wortman, had married my mother’s cousin. As I was growing up my stepfather often took me to the Paddock, a tavern that served as Wortman’s headquarters. After I was locked up, Wortman tried to help me in whatever way he could. Had James Earl Ray gone to Wortman for help–and had Wortman actually hidden him out–I would have learned of it through my stepfather.
John Ray also said his brother had tried to get help from the Egan’s Rats, an Irish gang in St. Louis. The Egan’s Rats went out of existence decades before James Earl Ray escaped. The Ray brothers were as penny ante as criminals get in St. Louis. Wortman would never have gotten involved with them. Buster Wortman was under constant investigation by the FBI. He would never have risked hiding an escaped convict, particularly a petty thief who could do him no good, and to whom he owed nothing.
When Jerry Ray appeared before HSCA in 1978 he was represented by a lawyer named William Pepper. Originally from New York, Pepper has worn a variety of hats: freelance journalist (in Vietnam), operator of a group home in Rhode Island, school consultant, civil-rights activist, author and lawyer. At the time of his appearance in front of HSCA, Pepper was in serious trouble in Rhode Island. Charges had been filed against him alleging he had solicited teenagers: “transporting boys for immoral purposes”, the charges read.
Those charges arose out of a federal investigation into a state-funded foster care program that Pepper operated. In 1975 he’d been fired by the mayor of Providence, who questioned his close personal relationship with the superintendent of Providence schools.
After the HSCA investigation, Pepper moved to London, to pursue international law, he says. He began to represent James Earl Ray. Pepper eventually convinced the BBC to produce a mock trial of Ray. With that money he hired investigators and began to prepare the two-hour show (because of a need for additional financing, HBO later got involved and it aired on HBO in 1993).
One of the investigators Pepper had hired was James E. Johnson, who had served time with me in the 1960s. He had a life sentence for second-degree murder and worked as a clerk in the Catholic Chapel, where we occasionally played chess. Johnson was living in Los Angeles and working full time on the Ray project. To put it as gently as possible, Johnson was living in a fantasy world. He came to Kansas City to meet with me, spinning some tales that left me shaking my head. His holy grail was George Ben Edmonson.
I’d first met Edmonson at the Algoa reformatory near Jefferson City, where he’d taught me how to type. At that time I was 15 (although the minimum age for inmates at Algoa was 17, I’d been transferred to Algoa after four escapes from Boonville Training School) and Edmondson was about 22. The next time I saw Edmondson was in Jefferson City. He arrived several years after I got there. In 1966 he was assigned to L-Hall, an honor unit just outside the walls, and was working at the State Capitol as a computer programmer (he’d completed about two years of civil engineering in college before robbing a savings and loan).
One day Edmondson walked away from his job and disappeared–along with about $5,000 in state funds. About a year later, after being put on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, Edmondson was captured in Canada. It was learned that he’d been the project engineer for the West German Pavilion at Expo-67 in Montreal. Because James Earl Ray claimed to have been recruited by a mysterious “Raoul” in Montreal, even William Bradford Huie, author of They Slew The Dreamer, tried to find a way to connect Edmondson to the assassination. However, Edmondson had been captured before Ray went to Montreal.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get Johnson to see the folly of trying to connect Edmondson to the King killing. At one point he spun a theory that, at the time Edmondson was in Algoa (1956) he was really in military intelligence and was building a “deep cover.” Johnson, who was also working on the Kennedy assassination, was looking for a way to connect Edmondson to that, as well. I couldn’t get him to see the illogic of Edmondson building a cover in 1956, in preparation for assassinating a president who wasn’t even elected until 1960.
When I met with William Pepper in Memphis, in 1993, during filming of The Trial of James Earl Ray I quickly discovered that he was as impervious to logic as Johnson. He was already launched on his theory that King was killed by the FBI and the military and the Mafia. My suggestion that King was murdered by white supremacists, possibly including J.B. Stoner and Jerry Ray, didn’t persuade him. There is even the possibility that FBI agents in the South deliberately deflected the investigation away from the white supremacists.
No matter how much one would like to believe it, I just can’t see Hoover getting involved in a murder plot involving dozens of people. The man was simply too smart for that. Now, once the murder was committed, I could see Hoover limiting the damage to James Earl Ray. There is proof that the FBI had three witnesses who saw suspects near the Birmingham church in which four young girls were killed by a bomb in 1964, and Hoover withheld that information from Alabama authorities, on the ground he didn’t think anyone would be convicted anyway. And there is always the possibility that some FBI agents in the South were deeply sympathetic to, if not actual members of, white supremacist groups. In any event, Pepper stuck to his guns and the HBO special ran, and Ray was, of course, cinematically acquitted.
In 1995 Pepper published a book, Orders To Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King He was recently sued by Billy Ray Eidson, a former green beret. In his book Pepper claimed Eidson had been murdered to keep him quiet (about military involvement in the conspiracy to kill King). Pepper said he welcomes the suit because it allows him to have discovery against the Army.
No matter what Judge Joe Brown rules in Memphis about granting Ray a new trial, time is against the truth. If Brown rules in favor of Ray, the state of Tennessee will appeal his ruling. The state knows, after all, that Ray is dying. The prison authorities have ruled against Ray being allowed to travel for a liver transplant. Jesse Jackson says Ray should not get a new trial unless he confesses all he knows first.
Ray also knows that, should he get a new trial, a prosecutor might have serious difficulty convicting him. Should he get a new trial, he might well decide to clam up and let the state prove what it can prove. James Earl Ray has never been a rat, and I can’t see him starting now, when death is giving him daily hugs.
As a journalist I’ve been following the Ray case for a quarter-century. The more I study it, the more convinced I become that Ray did not personally shoot Martin Luther King. I am also firmly convinced he was involved in the assassination. I believe Ray is covering up for white supremacists. Too many people, however, think of Bubba when they hear that phrase–some Cro-Magnon foreheaded, tobacco-spitting redneck.
In the South, when you speak of white supremacists, you are often speaking of lawyers, police officers, businessmen. After Ray escaped from prison, as he was hiding from the law, how did he come in contact with these people? I’m sure these people weren’t walking around, asking strangers, “Hey, are you an escaped convict who’d like to shoot an internationally known man?”
The theory that Ray acted alone is ludicrous. Ray was simply too unsophisticated to have arranged by himself the elaborate escape to Canada, London and Portugal and back to London, with multiple false IDs and passports. Someone who was in contact with Ray, was also in contact with the people who wanted Martin Luther King, Jr. dead. I’ll give you four guesses as to who I think that person was. Hint: he has a history of shooting people. Several members of the first HSAC have suggested a new committee be formed. That may be the only hope for getting at the truth.
We damned sure aren’t going to get it from James Earl Ray.
Web exclusive to the August 7-13, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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