Proof of guilt
Despite conspiracy theories, ‘Klandestine’ author points to evidence from Atlanta that proves James Earl Ray was the lone killer of MLK Jr.
By Pate McMichael | For the AJC
Two images define Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The first is indelible. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson stand on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, pointing up and across the motel parking lot. Their arms parallel in trajectory, their fingers extended in accusation. King lies prone on a miserable slab of concrete in a pool of his own blood. An undercover Memphis police officer cradles King’s head.
Seconds earlier, a single bullet fired from a concealed position had struck the right side of King’s face and severed his spinal column.
The kill-shot was fired at 6:01 p.m., the date April 4, 1968.
The second image is no less gothic. Taken on March 27, 1997, it shows King’s son, Dexter, shaking hands with James Earl Ray, the man convicted for King’s murder.
Twenty-nine years after his father’s death, Dexter King visited a Nashville medical prison, where Ray would later die of kidney disease and liver failure. Wearing bifocals, a blue jumpsuit and prison slippers, Ray arrived in a wheelchair, then stood up to shake hands with Dexter, the youngest son — and spitting image — of the man Ray pleaded guilty of slaying.
Both men sat in wooden chairs and held an awkward conversation about Ray’s failing health. Fifteen minutes in, Dexter spoke candidly.
“I just want to ask you, for the record, did you kill my father?”
“No, no, I didn’t, no,” Ray mumbled. “But like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer ...”
In a rambling, weak voice, Ray talked about conspiracy theories and cover-ups.
“Well, as awkward as this may seem,” Dexter interjected. “I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you, and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail.”
As the author of “Klandestine: How a Klan Lawyer and a Checkbook Journalist Helped James Earl Ray Cover Up His Crime” (Chicago Review Press), I have spent eight years researching King’s assassination and I am convinced Ray fired the shot.
He admitted as much by pleading guilty and accepting a 99-year sentence. In doing so, Ray forfeited the right to a fair trial and any future appeals. He took the years, I believe, in hopes of making a future escape, which he did in June 1977, only to be captured three days later.
Despite a long list of unanswered questions and strange coincidences, I believe King’s supporters have been misled by conspiracy theorists and profiteers alike. For 30 years, through publishing deals and television dramas, Ray managed to keep the promise of conspiracy alive by partnering with shady lawyers who helped him deceive King’s family and millions of people across the world.
An exhausting array of government investigations has produced untold volumes of transcripts and reports but few unanimous conclusions. Rather than rehash 47 years of debate and analysis, I present three pieces of evidence gathered in Atlanta during a two-week period that point to Ray’s culpability.
How we got the story
Next week marks the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When Pate McMichael, a journalism professor at Georgia College and author of “Klandestine” about confessed triggerman James Earl Ray, first pitched this story to the AJC, several of us were stunned to realize how little we knew about Ray and his activities leading up to the murder. McMichael really lays it out here, and he makes a compelling case for dismissing all the many conspiracy theories that have surrounded this dark day in history.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
On April 4, 1968, a white 1966 Mustang coupe parked on South Main Street in Memphis around 3 p.m. It bore Alabama “Heart of Dixie” license plates and Mexican turista stickers on the front and rear windshields. Maps of various states were strewn across the red leather seats.
The 1966 coupe was the best-selling Mustang of all time; Ford made nearly a half-million of them. But this Mustang seemed out of place parked outside the old brick storefronts for Jim’s Grill and Canipe’s Amusement Company record shop.
Upstairs, Bessie Brewer ran a cheap rooming house for drifters. The dimly lit rooms, furnished with second-hand beds and dressers, reeked of stale smoke that stained the fading wallpaper.
The owner of the Mustang checked into room 5B under the name of John Willard. He carried a green bundle inside and passed the afternoon in silence, leaving just once to purchase a pair of binoculars.
At 6:01 p.m., a shot was fired from the shared bathroom of the boarding house, followed by loud footsteps heard charging down the staircase and out the door onto Main Street. The owner of Canipe’s heard a thud when the green bundle landed on his doorstep. He stepped outside and saw a white male jump inside the Mustang and flee the scene. Police arrived immediately and one officer stood guard over the bundle in the vestibule of Canipe’s. A confusing alert for two white Mustangs was broadcast over the police radio, and the suspect got away as night fell.
As news of the assassination spread, rioting broke out across Memphis and 99 other American cities.
Inside the bundle, agents found the murder weapon — a Remington hunting rifle with a powerful Redfield scope — as well as a radio, a bedspread and that morning’s Memphis Commercial Appeal, which carried a front-page story noting King’s presence at the Lorraine Motel. The items were immediately flown to the FBI laboratory in Washington.
The rifle had been purchased at Aeromarine Supply, a gun store in Birmingham. The customer had given the name Harvey Lowmeyer.
Connecting Willard and Lowmeyer revolved around finding that one-in-a-half-million Mustang.
Five days later on April 9, a mule-drawn caisson transported King’s casket through Atlanta, from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College, in the serenading company of a hundred thousand marchers.
Two days later, Atlanta Police detectives got a call from a tenant of Capitol Homes, a 600-unit public housing complex on DeKalb Avenue in Atlanta, who saw someone park a white Mustang there the morning after the assassination. It was a hardtop with Alabama plates registered to Eric Stalvo Galt of Birmingham. It had not been reported missing or stolen.
The FBI arrived around 4 p.m. Bystanders were hanging around like museum patrons as agents took photographs and searched for eyewitnesses.
Mary Bridges, a resident at Capitol Homes, saw the Mustang enter the parking lot just after she sent her children off to school. From her window she noticed its out-of-state plates and the driver’s careful way of backing into the space. A young white man stepped out of the Mustang wearing a dark suit. She did not get a look at his face.
That same morning, Lucy Cayton, another resident, was sweeping her front stoop when she spotted a nice-looking man in a suit. He walked in her direction as he cut through a common area in her backyard en route to Memorial Drive, where he disappeared. Unlike Bridges, Cayton saw his face and described him as a man of average height, in his early 20s or 30s, with dark hair. Both Bridges and Cayton took him for an insurance salesman.
The FBI towed the Mustang to its garage on 275 Peachtree St., where agents combed it over like an archaeological find. The front and back turista stickers were from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where the Mustang crossed the border in October 1967. A tube inside one of the tires indicated it was made in Mexico.
Oil change stickers on the driver-side door and odometer readings put the Mustang in Los Angeles from December 1967 until March 1968. A note scribbled on a Kleenex box read “At pool” and “Ginger and Anita Katzwinkel, 1535 Serrano, Apt. 6.”
Working through the night and into the early hours of April 12, Agents dusted prints off the rearview mirror and collected hair and fiber samples from a pillow and clothing found in the trunk. Later that day, forensic experts matched fibers found inside the Mustang to the bedspread found in Memphis.
It now seemed clear that Willard, Lowmeyer and Galt were the same man.
The death of a King
- King’s son, Dexter King (left), shakes hands with confessed assassin James Earl Ray at a meeting in Nashville, Tenn., in 1997. Twenty-nine years after his father’s death, the younger King was meeting with Ray to pose this question: "[D]id you kill my father?" Earl Warren / State of Tennessee / Associated Press
- Photographer Joseph Louw captured this iconic photo minutes after an assassin’s bullet struck the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. Several aides, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, stand over King and point toward the bathroom window of Bessie Brewer’s boarding house. Copyright 1968 Time Inc.
- Mug shot of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of National Archives
- Bessie Brewer's rooming house in Memphis. The shot that killed Martin Luther King Jr. was fired from a bathroom window inside the second-story boarding house. Contributed by Shelby County Register of Deeds
- Fingerprints and fiber samples collected from Ray’s Mustang were used to help link him to King’s murder. Contributed by Shelby County Register of Deeds
- A Memphis police officer guards the bundle containing the murder weapon, which James Earl Ray dropped on his way to his car after firing the shot that killed Martin Luther King Jr. Contributed by Shelby County Register of Deeds
- The rooming house at 113 14th Street in Atlanta where evidence indicates James Earl Ray returned after killing Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Contributed by Shelby County Register of Deeds
- Thousands of mourners follow King's casket through Atlanta. A.D. King helped lead his family on the somber march. A.D. King holds the hands of his brother's oldest child, Yolanda, and the youngest, Bernice. Coretta Scott King is wearing the black veil and being held by Ralph David Abernathy, who is holding Dexter King. Martin Luther King III is next to him. Dan Hogan Charles/Associated Press
- Martin Luther King, Jr. funeral passes in front of Atlanta city hall near the state capitol building. AJC Staff Photo/Charles Jackson
- A brace of plow mules pull a farm wagon bearing King’s mahogany casket along the funeral procession route from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College in Atlanta on April 9, 1968. AP File
- In this 1968 Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo by Noel Davis, Coretta Scott King sits with tears in her eyes at the funeral of her slain husband, Martin Luther King Jr. To her left sits Harry Belafonte.
FBI agents confirmed that Galt had indeed lived at an apartment on Serrano Avenue in Los Angeles and likely hung out with young women by the pool. Through shoe-leather detective work, they also discovered that Galt purchased money orders from a Bank of America to pay for correspondence classes with the Locksmithing Institute in Little Falls, New Jersey.
On April 13, the Locksmithing Institute reported that Galt had recently changed his Hollywood address to a boarding house in Atlanta at 113 14th St. NE. Sixteen days earlier, on March 28, he made a $7.50 payment on the classes with a money order purchased in Atlanta.
Dressed as hippies, Atlanta FBI agents rented the room next to Galt’s. Once they established the room was vacant, they removed an adjoining door and entered Galt’s lair. The room did not yield much valuable evidence, so the agents questioned Galt’s landlord, Jimmie Lee Garner, who described himself as a Mississippi Baptist and a terrible alcoholic “in the throes of a terrific hangover.” He said he rented a room to Galt on March 24 for a week’s stay. On March 31, Galt paid for another week, but as far as Garner knew, Galt left sometime during the first week of April.
Garner initially withheld that Galt had utilized a small storage room in the house. Garner wanted to keep some of the possessions for himself, including a TV. But he soon ’fessed up and the FBI raided the storage room, seizing everything including booklets titled “Your Opportunities in Locksmithing” and “What is the John Birch Society?” Besides clothes and food, they also found maps of Atlanta, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.
The evidence was immediately flown to the lab in Washington. A closer look at two of the maps provided indisputable evidence. The map of Mexico contained six latent fingerprints, one of which proved identical to the print found on the murder weapon. The second map was of Atlanta and contained circles drawn around Capitol Homes, Garner’s rooming house, Ebenezer Baptist Church and King’s residence.
This Galt character, whoever he was, had likely been stalking King in Atlanta as early as March 24 — 11 days before the assassination. Postal records showed that Galt left Los Angeles on March 17 — the day after King spoke to the California Democratic Counsel in L.A. — and drove cross-country, following King back to Georgia.
Perhaps confused by King’s ever-changing schedule, or lacking the proper weapon to complete the mission, Galt never attempted a shot in Atlanta. Nor did he show up in Memphis on March 28, when King led a march for the city’s striking sanitation workers that dissolved into violence and rioting. That afternoon, the FBI’s propaganda and eavesdropping machine — dubbed COINTELPRO — chastised King for taking refuge in the fancy Rivermont Holiday Inn instead of the black-owned Lorraine Motel.
When King returned to Memphis on April 3 to lead another march, he made his headquarters at the Lorraine, a budget lodging on Mulberry Street where guests parked outside their rooms. Armed with the perfect weapon and a powerful scope, the suspect stood in Bessie Brewer’s bathroom tub, 205 feet away, waiting for King to walk out of the door.
Ray pleaded guilty to King’s murder on March 10, 1969, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Here he arrives at the State Penitentiary under guard. UPI file
The mystery of Galt’s true identity ended 15 days after King’s death, when the FBI lab matched the fingerprints on the murder weapon and the map of Mexico to an ex-con named James Earl Ray.
To prove it, the Los Angeles FBI tracked down a graduation photo of Galt from the International School of Bartending that matched previous mug shots of Ray, a habitual offender.
Born in Alton, Illinois, Ray lived most of his adult life in the St. Louis area. He served in the U.S. Army and then commenced a life-long career as a petty thief, serving time in California, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri. Armed robbery was his trade, and in 1959 he held up a Kroger in St. Louis, which landed him at the Missouri State Penitentiary serving a 20-year sentence. But in April 1967, Ray escaped by hiding in a giant breadbox that was loaded onto a truck bound for a prison farm.
He made his way to a Chicago suburb, where he worked at a restaurant for 10 weeks as a dishwasher. And in July, Ray and his two brothers are believed to have held up a bank in their hometown of Alton, making off with $30,000. Ray fled to Montreal to lay low for a month before taking a train to Birmingham, Alabama, where he purchased the Mustang, and later, the murder weapon. In October, he left Birmingham for Mexico, ultimately arriving in Los Angeles that November, where he stayed until spring when he headed south and set King’s assassination in motion.
The FBI concluded that after he abandoned his car at Capitol Homes, Ray walked down Peachtree Street to pick up some laundry, then headed back to Garner’s rooming house to pack up. A taxi then dropped him off at the Greyhound Bus depot, where he boarded a transport that ultimately led him to Toronto.
Ray stayed in Toronto for several weeks until he secured a fake passport and flew to London. He was finally nabbed by Scotland Yard on June 8, 1968, as he tried to board a flight to Rhodesia, a white-ruled country fighting “communist” native insurgencies, which he believed would not extradite him back to the U.S.
Ray’s trial was scheduled for November 1968 in Memphis. As the date approached, Ray and his defense team published two articles in Look magazine claiming he was set-up by an assassination mastermind named Raoul, whom Ray described as “a blond Latin” with mysterious ties to both Canada and New Orleans. Ray admitted purchasing the Mustang, renting a room in Atlanta and returning to the city after Raoul, not Ray, fired the shot in Memphis.
Central to the Raoul defense was Ray’s whereabouts on April 1, 1968. Ray claimed he left Atlanta on March 29 to purchase the murder weapon in Birmingham on Raoul’s instructions. Ray said he spent the six days leading up to the assassination in Alabama and Mississippi, laying low.
Ten years later, Ray testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations and told the same story. Congressman Louis Stokes, chairman of the committee, asked Ray to confirm his whereabouts on April 1.
“Now you said to us in your statement here that after purchasing the rifle you didn’t return to Atlanta, isn’t that true?”
“That is correct, yes,” Ray said.
“Do you want to change anything at all about that statement?”
“No. I don’t want to change that one regardless of how many documents you have up there. I know I didn’t return to Atlanta. If I did, I will just take the responsibility for the King case here on TV.”
What Ray didn’t know is that the Atlanta FBI could place him in Atlanta on April 1. That’s because the manager of Piedmont Laundry on Peachtree Street produced two laundry receipts in Galt’s name. They show that Galt dropped off his laundry before 10 a.m. on April 1 and picked it up sometime after 9 a.m. on April 5 — 15 hours after the assassination.
This seemed to prove that Ray had indeed returned to Atlanta after buying the rifle, likely with the hope of killing King in his hometown.
Congressman Stokes handed Ray the Piedmont Laundry receipt dated April 1. Ray’s lawyer Mark Lane was stunned and frantically asked for a recess to read the document. Two hours later, they returned to claim the receipt was doctored.
About the author
Pate McMichael is the author of “Klandestine: How a Klan Lawyer and Checkbook Journalist Helped James Earl Ray Cover Up His Crime” (Chicago Review Press). He currently teaches journalism at Georgia College. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and the University of Georgia, he was named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists in 2009.
The KKK connection
Ray was a bitter racist who protected his motive like a precious trophy.
I believe he threw away the fugitive life on the beaches of Mexico to help former Alabama governor George C. Wallace win the presidential election of 1968. When Ray arrived in LA, the city was covered with Wallace supporters from Alabama who were frantically trying to secure 70,000 signatures to put him on the California presidential ballot. Ray drove friends to the precinct to sign the petition. He secured a phone line in his motel room under the pretense of working for the Wallace campaign. He got into heated arguments and at least one brawl trying to spread the Wallace religion to barflies.
Killing King bolstered Wallace’s historic third-party campaign, the slogan of which was “Law and Order.” As crazy as it may sound, I believe Ray believed Wallace, when elected, would grant Ray a pardon for killing King.
It’s very likely that Ray planned to flee to Rhodesia to kill more blacks. In 1968, segregationists like Wallace talked as much about the Rhodesia Bush War as the Vietnam conflict. Shunned by the West for trying to maintain colonial rule, the white farmers of Rhodesia defended themselves as Cold War warriors under siege by Soviet-backed natives. Wallace had used the same anti-Communist rhetoric years earlier trying to stop King’s movement in Birmingham and Selma.
That’s why Ray possessed John Birch Society literature. That’s why, having helped Wallace secure more than 100,000 signatures in L.A., he then wrote to “Friends of Rhodesia” and later thanked its director for “answering most of my questions regarding immigration.” While in London, Ray called a reporter for the Times of London and asked how he could join the Rhodesian mercenaries.
After his London capture, Ray retained attorney Arthur Hanes to represent him in Memphis. At the time, Hanes was the top trial lawyer for the United Klans of America, the largest umbrella of Klansmen in the United States. Before that, Hanes was mayor of Birmingham in 1963, standing side-by-side with public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor as fire hoses and police dogs were unleashed on citizens.
When Hanes arrived in London, he immediately announced that Ray was set up by black militants with ties to Communism. A few months later the blame shifted to the mysterious Raoul who supposedly tricked Ray into purchasing the murder weapon and coming to Memphis. More than once, Hanes and Ray tried to link Raoul to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
As we approach the 47th anniversary of King’s assassination, now is the time to end the charade of international conspiracy. On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray killed this city’s greatest citizen at 6:01 p.m. in Memphis. He fled the scene in a white Mustang with Alabama plates and stayed on the road until daylight. Sometime before 9 a.m., he pulled into Atlanta with King’s blood on his hands.
Presentation by Shane Harrison.