About James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 – April 23, 1998) was an American criminal with a Danish background, convicted of the assassination of civil rights and anti-war activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ray was convicted on March 10, 1969, after entering a guilty plea to forgo a jury trial. Had he been found guilty by jury trial, he would have been eligible for the death penalty. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and tried unsuccessfully to gain a new trial. He died in prison of hepatitis C.
James Earl Ray came from a poor family in Alton, Illinois, and left school at age 15. He joined the US Army at the close of World War II and served in Germany.
Initial convictions and first escape from prison
He was convicted of his first crime, a burglary in California, in 1949. In 1952 he served two years for armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois. In 1955, he was convicted of mail fraud after stealing money orders in Hannibal, Missouri, and then forging them to take a trip to Florida. He served three years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. In 1959 he was caught stealing $120 in an armed robbery of a St. Louis Kroger. Ray was sentenced to twenty years in prison for repeated offenses. He escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967 by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery.
Activity in 1967
Following his escape, Ray stayed on the move, going first to St. Louis and then on to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and Birmingham. When he got to Alabama, Ray stayed long enough to buy a 1966 Ford Mustang and get an Alabama driver’s license. He then drove to Mexico, stopping in Acapulco before settling down in Puerto Vallarta on October 19, 1967. While in Mexico, Ray, using the alias Eric Starvo Galt, attempted to establish himself as a porn director. Using mail-ordered equipment, he filmed and photographed local prostitutes. Frustrated with his results and jilted by the prostitute he had formed a relationship with, Ray left Mexico around November 16, 1967.
Ray arrived in Los Angeles on November 19. While in L.A., Ray attended a local bartending school and took dance lessons. His chief interest, however, was the George Wallace presidential campaign. Ray harbored a strong prejudice against African Americans and was quickly drawn to Wallace’s segregationist platform. He spent much of his time in Los Angeles volunteering at the Wallace campaign headquarters in North Hollywood. He also developed an interest in Rhodesia, where Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime was in power. He wrote to the American-Southern Africa Council on December 28, 1967, stating, “My reason for writing is that I am considering immigrating to Rhodesia.” The idea of living in Rhodesia stayed with Ray, and it would be his intended destination when he went on the run after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Activity in early 1968
On March 5, 1968, Ray underwent a rhinoplasty, performed by Dr. Russell Hadley. On March 18, 1968, Ray left Los Angeles and began a cross-country drive to Atlanta, Georgia.
Arriving in Atlanta on March 24, Ray checked into a rooming house. He eventually bought a map of the city. FBI agents would later find this map when they searched the room in which he was staying in Atlanta. On the map, the locations of the church and residence of Martin Luther King Jr. were allegedly circled. However, according to Dr. William Pepper, "The Atlanta map is nowhere related to Dr. King’s residence. It is three oblong circles that covered general areas."
Ray was soon on the road again, and drove his Mustang to Birmingham, Alabama. There, on March 30, 1968, he bought a Remington Gamemaster 760 .30-06-caliber rifle and a box of 20 cartridges from the Aeromarine Supply Company. He also bought a Redfield 2x7 scope, which he had mounted to the rifle. He told the store clerks that he was going on a hunting trip with his brother. Ray had continued using the Galt alias after his stint in Mexico, but when he made this purchase, he gave his name as Harvey Lowmeyer.
After buying the rifle and accessories, Ray drove back to Atlanta. An avid newspaper reader, Ray passed his time reading the Atlanta Constitution. The paper reported King’s planned return trip to Memphis, Tennessee, which was scheduled for April 1, 1968. On April 2, 1968, Ray packed a bag and drove to Memphis.
Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Main article: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Capture and trial
On June 8, 1968, a little more than two months after King's death, Ray was captured at London's Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport. At check-in the ticket agent noticed the name on his passport was on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police watchlist. He was using the name of Ramon George Sneyd. At the airport, officials noticed that Ray carried another passport under a second name. The UK quickly extradited Ray to Tennessee, where he was charged with King's murder. He confessed to the crime on March 10, 1969, and after pleading guilty was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Denial of confession
Three days later, he recanted his confession. Ray had entered a guilty plea on the advice of his attorney, Percy Foreman, in order to avoid a potential trial conviction, which could have led to a sentence of death. The method of execution in Tennessee at the time would have been electrocution.
Ray fired Foreman as his attorney and derisively called him "Percy Fourflusher," thereafter. Ray began claiming that a man he had met in Montreal, who used the alias "Raul", had been deeply involved. Instead he asserted that he did not "personally shoot Dr. King," but may have been, "partially responsible without knowing it," hinting at a conspiracy. Ray sold this version of King's assassination and his own flight to William Bradford Huie. Huie investigated this story and discovered Ray sometimes lied. Ray told Huie he purposely left the rifle with his fingerprints on it in plain sight because he wanted to become a famous criminal. Ray was convinced he was so smart that he would not be caught. He believed Governor of Alabama George Wallace would soon be elected President, and Ray would only be confined for a short time. He spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw his guilty plea and secure a trial.
Second escape from prison
On June 11, 1977, Ray made his second appearance on the FBI Most Wanted Fugitives list, this time as the 351st entry. He and six other convicts had escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, on June 10, 1977. They were recaptured on June 13, three days later, and returned to prison. A year was added to Ray's previous sentence, to total 100 years.
Ray had hired Jack Kershaw as his attorney, who promoted Ray's claim that he was not responsible for the shooting, which was said to have been the result of a conspiracy of the otherwise unidentified man named "Raul". Kershaw and his client met with representatives of the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations and convinced the committee to run ballistics tests — which ultimately proved inconclusive — that would show that Ray had not fired the fatal shot. Kershaw claimed that the escape was additional proof that Ray had been involved in a conspiracy that had provided him with the outside assistance he would have needed to break out of jail. Kershaw convinced Ray to take a polygraph test as part of an interview with Playboy. The magazine said that the test results showed "that Ray did, in fact, kill Martin Luther King Jr. and that he did so alone". Ray fired Kershaw after discovering that the attorney had been paid $11,000 by the magazine in exchange for the interview and hired conspiracy theorist Mark Lane to provide him with legal representation.
In 1997, King's son Dexter met with Ray, and publicly supported his efforts to obtain a retrial. Loyd Jowers, a restaurant owner in Memphis, was brought to civil court and sued as being part of a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King. Jowers was found legally liable, and the King family accepted $100 in restitution, an amount chosen to show that they were not pursuing the case for financial gain.
Dr. William Pepper, a friend of King in the last year of his life, represented Ray in a televised mock trial in an attempt to get him the trial he never had. Pepper later represented the King family in a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers. The King family has since concluded that Ray did not have anything to do with the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70, from complications related to kidney disease and liver failure caused by hepatitis C. He probably contracted the disease through a blood transfusion given after he sustained a stabbing while at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray was survived by seven siblings. His brother Jerry Ray told CNN that his brother did not want to be buried or have his final resting place in the United States because of "the way the government has treated him." Ray was cremated and his ashes were flown to Ireland, the home of his family's ancestors.