Martin Luther King Jr.
It was must after 6:00 on April 4, 1968, and Martin Luther King, Jr., was standing on the second-floor balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel when a sniper’s bullet cut through the evening air. Playfully bantering with his driver one moment, King was on his back the next, a pool of blood expanding around his head. Minutes later, the civil rights leader was dead.
The ostensible assassin, captured months later, was James Earl Ray, a petty crook who hadn’t shown a previous aptitude for any criminal enterprise more elaborate than gas station stickups and a prison escape. As the result of a deal between his attorney and the prosecution, Ray pleaded guilty and received a ninety-nine-year sentence. But he immediately recanted and, insisting his innocence, has attempted to secure a retrial ever since, without success.
Did Ray kill Martin Luther King? Two and a half decades after the fact, a small mountain of accumulating evidence tends to corroborate Ray’s broadest claim that he didn’t fire the fatal shot. We now know of that indelible day in Memphis shifts suspicion rather dramatically.
In the days and hours leading up to King’s murder, and extraordinary phalanx of government agents, informants, soldiers, and spies quietly filed into Memphis. Their business remains murky, purposefully so – government documents that might shed light on the case are still stubbornly classified.
However, they clearly had little interest in protecting King. His increasingly vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and outreach to impoverished whites had begun to stoke fears of revolution in the streets. Army intelligence, which had spied on King for decades, considered him to be a subversive and possibly a communist. Now they clambered to develop plans that might undercut King’s agenda, especially his upcoming March on Washington, billed in a panicky Pentagon intelligence report as “a devastating civil disturbance whose sole purpose is to shut down the United States government.” King was the domestic equivalent of the enemy being fought overseas: “a Negro who repeatedly has preached the message of Hanoi and Peking.”
Against this martial backdrop, King had returned to Memphis, vowing to restage a nonviolent march in defense of striking sanitation workers. The previous week, a King rally there had erupted into a riot that injured sixty and left one person dead. Egged on the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s hysterical “blind” leaks to the press, the media was now billing King’s return as a “dress rehearsal” for looting and rioting in Washington.
Enter the feds, surreptitiously, almost as if they had declared war on King:
In advance of King’s visit, the army’s 20th Special Forces Group, based in Alabama, had dispatched Green Beret soldiers to various cities in the South, including Memphis. Their mission: Making street maps, identifying landing zones for antiriot troops, and scouting sniper sites – supposedly to crush civil disorder. But the 20th was chock full of Special Operations Group vets, who in Vietnam had worked with the CIA in clandestine operations, including assassinations. According to a former army counterintelligence major quoted in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “They couldn’t let a lot of these crazy guys back into the States because they couldn’t forget their training.” So the army “dumped” them in Birmingham’s 20th SFG. “The rural South was ‘in-country,” the major said, “and at times things got out of hand.” The Ku Klux Klan became the 20th‘s domestic intelligence network, dubbed “Klan Special Forces.”According to army records obtained in 1993 by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, on April 3 army agents from the 111th Military Intelligence Group arrived in Memphis, where they shadowed King’s “movements and monitored radio traffic from a sedan crammed with electronic equipment.”
On the day of King’s assassination, “eight Green Beret soldiers from an ‘Operation Detachment Alpha 194 Team’ were also in Memphis carrying out an unknown mission,” per the Commercial Appeal.
According to then-Memphis police detective Ed Redditt, “an hour and a half, no more than two hours” before King’s assassination, he was summoned from his command post adjacent to the Lorraine Motel and whisked away to police headquarters. Redditt was one of only two officers assigned to protect King. In the police Chief’s office, “It was like a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he later told author Mark Lane. “In this room, just before Dr. King was murdered, were the heads and the seconds in command of I guess every law enforcement operation in this area…The Sheriff, the highway patrol, army intelligence, the national guard. You name it. It was in the room.
Redditt was introduced to the U.S. Secret Service agent who claimed to have flown out from Washington to warn him that a group in Mississippi had put a contract on his head. Redditt, an African American, was ordered to relinquish his post and go home. the supposed “death threat,” Redditt learned years later, turned out to have been a false alarm.
The first person to reach the mortally wounded King was Marrell McCullough, supposedly a black radical, but in reality an undercover cop keeping tabs on the minister’s entourage for the Memphis police and the FBI. According to Mark Lane, shortly after the assassination McCullough was also working for the CIA.
The local cops behaved plenty suspiciously, too. Memphis’s director of police and fire services removed the two black firemen stationed at the firehouse adjacent to the Lorraine Motel. The firehouse, Station 2, became the stakeout where Detective Redditt would surveil and protect King – until Redditt, too, was yanked from the site.
According to FBI documents, the Bureau had recently heard of some fifty threats against King’s life, the latest just three days before his death. Despite the warning signs, the local police withdrew their tactical units several blocks away from King’s motel. They also failed to seal off streets or issue an all-points-bulletin after the shooting. Consequently, the killer – or killers – had an open escape route.
The assassination was immediately dubbed the work of that familiar American archetype, the nonpolitical loner. And two months after the murder, London authorities arrested James Earl Ray, the leading suspect. Ray a forty-year-old white fugitive, had indeed fled Memphis moments after the fatal shot was fired. Without a doubt, he had some connection to the killing – a fact he has never contested.
The evidence aligned against Ray certainly looked convincing, perhaps too convincing. It included fingerprints on a .30-06 rifle with sniper’s scope, which was found on the sidewalk outside a seedy rooming house opposite the Lorraine Motel. Ray had in fact checked into a room there under an alias earlier that day. Bundled with the gun were an assortment of Ray’s personal items, including his prison-issued radio taken during his escape from lock-up the previous year.
Witnesses at the boarding house reported seeing a dark-suited man, presumed to be the new “tenant,” rushing through the second-floor hallway moments after the shot rang out. He was described as carrying a long package. A minute or so later, patrons in a record store beneath the boarding house saw a similarly clad man rush by the store window, dropping the package onto the pavement with a conspicuous thud. Moments later, they saw a man in a white Mustang bolt away from the curb in a screech of burning rubber.
It didn’t look good for Ray, to put it mildly. Not only did the window in Ray’s room face the Lorraine Motel balcony, but so did the window in the common bathroom on the same floor, where several witnesses claimed the gunshot originated. The furniture in Ray’s room had been rearranged to facilitate access to the window, and among Ray’s personal effects ditched on the sidewalk below was a pair of binoculars he had purchased that afternoon.
Ray’s inarticulate claims didn’t help his case. He insisted that he had been the dupe in a plot organized by a mysterious character named Raoul, whom he described variously as a “blond Latin,” a “red-haired French Canadian,” or an auburn-haired “Latin Spanish.” According to Ray, Raoul had hired him in Montreal the previous year as a courier in a gun-smuggling venture.
As Ray told it, he had purchased the damning rifle and binoculars at Raoul’s behest. The rifle was to be a demo model for prospective illegal buyers. Although his boss told Ray to stay near his car parked below the flophouse, Ray claimed that he had driven to a nearby gas station. When he returned to the boarding house, he later asserted, pandemonium was in full swing. Assuming that Raoul’s gun deal had gone awry, Ray claimed that he hightailed it out of town, only learning later that King had been gunned down.
Though the official version of events seems to present an open-and-shut case against Ray – bolstered by his initial guilty plea – there are more than a few discrepancies:
Numerous witnesses reported that there were two white Mustangs parked outside the fleabite boarding house in Memphis. Could a man of a similar physical build and attire have impersonate Ray, conspicuously dropping the rifle for the benefit of bystanders, and then peeling away in a car just like Ray’s?For Ray to pack his easily traced personal effects with the supposed murder weapon is the height of criminal stupidity. For him to then dump the incriminating package in plain view of witnesses, a few steps away from his car, is just plain unbelievable. On the other hand, someone trying to frame Ray might do just that.
Only one “witness,” Charles Stephens, identified Ray as the man seen fleeing from the boarding house. At first Stephens denied that Ray was the man who rushed from the bathroom, but after languishing in jail for a spell as a “material witness,” Stephens changed his story. Later, however, he recanted and complained that he was coerced into signing a false affidavit.
according to Grace Stephens, her husband wasn’t even in the building when the shot rang out. It was she who saw a man fleeing down the hall, not her husband. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Mrs. Stephens claimed from the beginning. “That wasn’t James Earl Ray. It was an entirely different man.”
To be sure, the Stephenses aren’t the most reliable of witnesses; at the time both were drinking heavily. In a move that certainly seems suspicious, though, soon after her husband was jailed, Grace was illegally confined to a mental institution. According to her lawyer, she was “shuttle off” to the nuthouse because her loud claims threatened the Memphis prosecutor’s case against Ray.
Though the rifle and sundry items packed around it were covered with Ray’s fingerprints, uncharacteristically it took the FBI weeks to match them to Ray the escaped convict. And none of Ray’s prints were found in his room, nor on a box filled with bullets.
There are other mysterious occurrences that belie the lone-nut scenario: On the lam in Toronto, while he was holed up in a boarding house, Ray was visited by a person who has come to be known as “the fat man.” The fat man hand-delivered an envelope to the frightened fugitive. Apparently Ray wasn’t concerned that this supposed stranger might be a policeman, for according to the hostel keep, her reclusive guest uncharacteristically met the man at the front door. It would seem that the mysterious stranger delivered a wad of cash, for the very next day Ray bought a plane ticket to London.
Canadian authorities later located the fat man, who rattled off an implausible story that nonetheless satisfied the police: He had stumbled upon an envelope bearing Ray’s address and decided to return it to its owner. But when author Philip Melanson tracked him down and confronted him years later, the fat man said that he had refused to testify in 1968 in order to avoid getting “a bullet in my head.” Later, he added, without elaborating, “Ray and those people are gangsters. They’ll kill anyone.”
But the best and spookiest evidence of a conspiracy consists of Ray’s use of sophisticated aliases during the months leading up to the assassination and directly thereafter.
All four of Ray’s aliases have one very crucial connection: they were names of real people living in close proximity to one another in Toronto, Canada. But Ray visited Toronto only once in his life: while on the lam, just after King was assassinated. Yet he had been using several of the false identities months before the assassination. How had Ray come by these names? Typically, Ray’s explanations have been evasive.
Melanson tracked down the Canadians, and the scenario he details in his 1989 book, The Murkin Conspiracy, is downright chilling. Months before the assassination, Ray was using the alias, “Eric Starvo Galt.” Melanson discovered that, during the same period, the Toronto man named Eric Galt was signing his middle name, St. Vincent, as “St. V.,” scribbling lopsided circles for the periods, so that the full name looked to the uninitiated like “Eric Starvo Galt.” In an impressive bit of detection, Melanson found that at some point, the real Eric St. Vincent Galt changed his signature, and began signing documents and personal checks as Eric S. Galt. At about the same time, the recidivist American crook James Earl Ray changed his alias to “Eric S. Galt.” And this was months before Ray’s first and only visit to Toronto!
There were other uncanny parallels between Ray and the Canadians whose names he apparently filched – especially Galt. Ray bore a striking resemblance to Galt. Both had scars above their eyes. In fact, the other Canadians also had facial scars. Four months before the assassination, Ray – the two-big holdup man – underwent plastic surgery, which modified his “very distinctive pointy nose,” according to Melanson, and made him look even more like the real Galt. Moreover, the Canadian Galt was a skilled marksman who often toted guns in his car to and from the shooting range and who had visited cities of the American South frequented by Ray.
Melanson’s point is very persuasive: These parallels cannot possibly be coincidences. Was someone trying to draw attention to these four hapless Canadians? In fact, that’s just what happened. During the search for King’s assassin, they became unwitting victims of Ray’s aliases. At the time of “the greatest manhunt in history” Galt saw his name blazoned in banner headlines. Had the FBI not identified Ray’s prints on the rifle, the innocent Galt would almost surely have become the prime suspect.
What was the point of this sophisticated legerdemain with Ray’s aliases? According to Melanson, Galt was the key. “Galt was more than simply a cover: He was man who could be implicated in the crime, at least temporarily, while Ray made his escape.” The other two Canadians lived conveniently near Galt, and police might erroneously conclude that the real Galt had stolen his three “aliases” from them. In short, the unsuspecting Galt was set up to be the “wrong man.”
The parallels “were surely the result of conspiratorial planning rather than coincidence,” concludes Melanson, adding that “This was beyond the capacities of a small-time loser like Ray.”
Melanson argues that the conspirators probably selected Galt and cribbed his vital stats by gaining access to his top-secret security clearance file. For Galt was an employee at a Canadian defense firm working on a classified missile project for the U.S. military. His file was kept by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
The CIA routinely trades information with the RCMP, raising the possibility that American intelligence had a hand in Ray’s elaborate odyssey – and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
While some assassination researchers believe that Ray was a completely innocent “patsy,” others suggest that he played a part in the plot, albeit maybe not as the triggerman. Melanson, who belongs to the latter school, suggests that had Ray reached his ultimate destination, Angola, he would have been discreetly murdered.
Which brings us full circle to the quasi-chimerical “Raoul,” Ray’s purported master. Ray had supposedly met Raoul in Montreal. In 1968 a Canadian journalist tracked down a “Raoul-like” character in that city. Named Jules Ron “Ricco” Kimble, this American expatriate also was known as “Rolland” or “Rollie.”
Although the House Select Committee on Assassinations report stated that Kimble denied any evidence of the murder, in 1989 he told reporters John Edginton and John Sergeant that he had in fact been involved in the conspiracy that killed King. According to Kimble, the plot involved agents of the CIA and FBI, the “mob,” and Ray. (Kimble is serving a double life sentence in El Reno, Oklahoma, for two murders he says were political.)
Kimble now claims responsibility for introducing Ray to a CIA operative in Montreal who arranged for Ray’s aliases. But was Kimble, himself, the mysterious Raoul? Unfortunately, the story gets murkier, for reporters Edginton and Sergeant cite an anonymous “ex-CIA agent” as confirming that the Agency employed a Canada-based operative who specialized in creating false identities. That operative’s name? Raoul Maora.
The evidence of government involvement in the King assassination is admittedly circumstantial. But taken together – the massive presence of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement operative in Memphis, the discrepancies in the evidence against Ray, the Canadian aliases, and the fact that Ray seems to have had a sophisticated support network that kept him on a payroll – the scenario gets, well, curiouser and curiouser.
The FBI’s alleged absence from the scene of the crime is particularly odd. The Bureau claimed that it hadn’t had King under surveillance in Memphis. For years, however, he had been the target of Hoover’s pathological crusade to destroy the “Black Messiah,” as King was known in Bureauspeak. That the FBI would innocently call off its unrelenting dogs just as King’s “threat” to law-and-order types was cresting stretches credulity to the snapping point.
Did the FBI’s illegal campaign against King go beyond its well-documented character assassination? An FBI memo dated less than a year before King died in Memphis seems prescient: It stated that a CIA informant “feels that somewhere in the Negro movement, at the top, there must be a Negro leader who is ‘clean’ who could step into the vacuum and chaos if Martin Luther King were either exposed or assassinated.”
No heir apparent ever emerged – although ultrasuspicious conspiracy trackers note Jesse Jackson’s public appearance soon after the shooting in a shirt stained with the fallen martyr’s blood – but by hook, crook, or sheer dumb luck, Hoover and his bully boys got their wish.