Did James Earl Ray really kill Martin Luther King or was he set up to take the fall?
On the evening before his death, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered one of his most stirring and prophetic speeches. Less than 24 hours later, Dr. King was dead, shot by an assassin’s bullet as he left his motel for dinner. His accused killer, James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty to the murder and the case was officially closed.
But just three days after his conviction, Ray recanted his guilty plea. He suddenly claimed that he was just a pawn in a conspiracy to kill Dr. King. Ray’s claims of innocence were dismissed and the case remained closed.
In 1976, a congressional committee of the U.S. House of Representatives determined that James Earl Ray was the lone assassin of Dr. King. But Walter Fauntroy, the chairman of the King Subcommittee, now believes that conclusion was wrong:
Until his death in 1998, James Earl Ray maintained that he did not shoot Martin Luther King. The FBI stands by their original finding that Ray acted alone. But some researchers now say there is evidence that backs up Ray’s allegations of conspiracy.
Martin Luther King arrived in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. King checked into the Lorraine Motel and began planning a march in support of striking city sanitation workers. King’s presence at the motel had been well publicized by the press.
Across the street from the motel was a rooming house. On April 4, just before 6:00 p.m., Williams Anschutz, a tenant of the rooming house, found the building’s communal bathroom locked. What follows is the official government account of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Inside the bathroom, James Earl Ray, a career petty criminal, loaded a high-powered rifle and took aim at the Lorraine Motel and shot King. According to the government, James Earl Ray then raced into the room he had rented earlier that day. He wrapped the rifle, along with an overnight bag containing personal items, into a bedspread. In the hallway, he was seen by Charles Stephens, who lived in the room next to the bathroom.
As he was making his getaway, the government believes Ray was panicked by a police car and dropped his bundle in the doorway of the Canipe Amusement Company. A moment later, three witnesses inside the building saw a white car, possibly a Mustang, speed away.
Police were able to recover the rifle along with Ray’s personal items, but by the time they identified Ray, he had left the country.
Two months later, Ray was arrested in London as he tried to board a flight to Brussels.
Just three days after his conviction, Ray announced that he had been pressured into pleading guilty. He said he did not shoot King and was the victim of a conspiracy. He claimed he was a scapegoat and was set up by a mysterious figure named Raoul.
On the surface, James Earl Ray did not seem like the kind of criminal who would commit murder. According to Walter Fauntroy, former chairman of the King Subcommittee, Ray’s crimes were small-time holdups and robberies:
Almost a year before King was assassinated, Ray escaped from a state prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence for robbing a grocery store. He made his way to Montreal, and using the name Eric Starvo Galt, tried to get a phony ID. Ray said that it was here that he was approached by a shadowy character who called himself Raoul.
According to Jim Lesar, Ray’s former attorney, Ray said when they first met, Raoul was only looking for an accomplice in a smuggling scheme:
Ray said he was instructed to smuggle contraband into Detroit from Canada. Ray claimed he was then directed by Raoul to go to Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. William Pepper was another of Ray’s attorneys. He says Raoul was able to get Ray to do whatever he asked by dangling a carrot on string:
Ray said that in Birmingham, Raoul gave him $2,000 and told him to buy a car. Seven months before the assassination, Ray did buy a white 1966 Mustang. Over the next several months, Ray said his smuggling jobs with Raoul took him to Mexico, Los Angeles, and then Atlanta. In Atlanta, just five days before the assassination, Raoul gave him his next job. According to Dr. William Pepper, Ray’s attorney, it involved firearms:
Following Raoul’s instructions, Ray said he drove to a gun shop in Birmingham where he purchased a .243 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight. Jim Lesar, Ray’s former attorney, described Ray as a novice with firearms:
Ray said Raoul told him to exchange the weapon the next day, giving him specific instructions on what to buy: a Remington model, 760 Gamemaster, pump action.
Ray claimed he gave the Remington rifle to Raoul at a motel in Memphis on April 3rd, the day before the assassination. Ray said that was the last time he saw the rifle, the same one the government concluded was used to kill Martin Luther King.
On April 4, 1968, the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, James Earl Ray claimed he met Raoul at a local coffee shop. Ray said Raoul told him to go to the rooming house upstairs, rent a room, then await instructions. The boarding house was on Main Street, next door to the Canipe Amusement Company, where the rifle would later be found. The back windows of the boarding house faced Mulberry Street and the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was staying.
At 4 p.m., Ray rented a room using an alias, John Willard. Raoul had instructed Ray to bring along an overnight bag so he wouldn’t look suspicious and told him to leave the Mustang parked nearby. What happened over the next hour, no one knows for sure. Ray himself has changed his story several times, but he was always clear that he left the boarding house at around 5 p.m. and never returned.
Ray said that just before 6 p.m., he drove the Mustang to a local service station. Ray claimed that at 6:01, the very moment King was shot, he was driving from the gas station back to the rooming house, unaware of what had happened. Ray’s attorney, Dr. William Pepper, explained why Ray was seen fleeing the scene:
Did James Earl Ray target Dr. King from the window of the rooming house? Dr. William Pepper said it’s unlikely, citing Ray’s apparent lack of skill with firearms:
Retired FBI Agent Joe Hester disagreed:
The official version says that when Ray ran from his room in the boarding house, he was seen by another tenant, Charles Stevens. Jim Lesar says Stevens was a shoddy witness:
G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, downplayed Stevens’ role in the investigation:
William Pepper questioned Stevens’ motives:
The government report said that Ray ran by the Canipe Amusement Company and dropped his weapon in a panic. But is it believable that any killer, no matter how panicked, would drop a bundle of personal items that could so easily identify him? Ray’s former attorney, Jim Lesar, had serious doubts:
A dusting of the rooming house turned up a number of fingerprints which were never identified. Former FBI agent Joe Hester said that wasn’t unusual:
The abandoned rifle was found to have two fingerprints belonging to James Earl Ray.
The FBI also could not match the bullet which killed King with the rifle. All they could say was that the bullet was consistent with that type of rifle. Jim Lesar responds:
Former House Select Committee Chief Counsel G. Robert Blakey summed up the case against James Earl Ray:
Even for those who believe Ray’s story, there is still one nagging question: if James Earl Ray is innocent, why would he plead guilty? Ray claimed that he was coerced by his attorney, who wanted exclusive publishing rights to his story. If Ray had testified in court, his allegations of conspiracy would have become public domain.
The most important element of Ray’s conspiracy story was the man who called himself Raoul. Retired FBI Agent Joe Hester says the agency never found any proof that Raoul actually existed:
Former defense investigator Harold Weisberg has reviewed 60,000 pages of FBI documents on the King assassination. He says he found references to a mysterious individual named J.C. Hardin:
Is it possible that J.C. Hardin, who visited Ray three weeks before the assassination, was the mysterious Raoul? In 1968, the FBI pursued the lead long enough to create a sketch of J.C. Hardin. It was based on a description given by the manager of the St. Francis Hotel. But after James Earl Ray was arrested, the FBI dropped their investigation of Hardin. Congressman Walter Fauntroy, former chairman of the King Subcommittee, said the name Hardin never came up during the hearings:
James Earl Ray refused to say whether J.C. Hardin and Raoul were the same person.
Dr. William Pepper:
G. Robert Blakey: