James Earl Ray
From the viewpoint of a man who served time with Ray in prison, then went on to become a journalist, and continued to follow the case, with some emphasis on Ray's mentality, how he escaped from prison, and why there is reason to believe white supremacists may have been behind King's murder.
The first time I saw James Earl Ray, he had just arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Charley McCracken, a friend from the St. Louis City Jail, pointed him out to me in H-Hall, where the newly arriving convicts at the maximum-security penitentiary were oriented.
The first year and a half I paid little or no attention to Ray. He was a loner. Most of my friends were people I'd known in reform school, or people I'd met through them. Although Ray had been sentenced from St. Louis, he was not part of the St. Louis "crowd."
In September 1961, I tried to escape and pulled six months in E-Hall, a 100-year-old building whose third floor was for solitary confinement.
About two months later, Ray tried to escape, and he came to E-Hall. We had no contact, however, since he was on the other side of the building.
But, having tried to escape from the maximum-security prison, we both had joined a small list of convicts who would be watched at all times by the guards. Of the 2,500 men in the prison, fewer than 20 had ever tried to escape from inside the walls. The greatest sin a convict can commit in prison is to escape. It endangers the premise of the place. Wardens and guards know that an escape artist is a threat to their livelihood; more guards and wardens have lost their jobs because of escapes than for any other reason.
I served my six months, got out and was put right back in for using amphetamine.
I spent virtually all of 1962 in solitary. When I got out the third time, I worked in the Tag Plant. By that time I was classified as incorrigible. At the Tag Plant I met Jerry Ward Davis, an Oklahoman who'd been shot in 1959 after kidnapping several guards (along with Rollie Laster and Ronnie Westberg) during an attempted escape that involved the use of zip-guns. Davis and Laster were both shot during that attempt.
Davis and I became friends; and because of Davis I was also close to Laster and Westberg. Westberg, in turn, liked James Earl Ray. Westberg once described Ray to me as, "Kind of countryfied, but he's okay." Although Westberg liked Ray, he never brought him around us. He knew we viewed Ray as a not-too-bright hillbilly.
Jerry was returned to solitary in 1963 for making zip-guns, and a few days later I was put in B-Basement on suspicion of stabbing an inmate who'd volunteered to help the guards search the Tag Plant for the rest of the zip-guns, which were never found.
Because of the 1959 incident, Jerry had so much heat on him that if the guards lost sight of him for even a few minutes, they panicked.
In that atmosphere, escape became almost impossible. We got involved in several schemes, but our lack of mobility made it difficult to function. At the same time I was getting more involved in art, and my thoughts were turning away from escape and toward trying to make parole. Jerry began to follow my lead, and that became a source of friction among me, Laster and Westberg.
During this period James Earl Ray was most noticeable as a guy who rented out magazines on the yard. Different convicts had different hustles to make money. For example, if you worked in the laundry you could charge people to starch and iron their clothes.
There were half a dozen guys who rented magazines, and they hawked their wares by the yard shack (a small rock building where the guards stayed). I occasionally rented magazines from Ray, but other inmates usually had a larger selection, and better quality magazines.
He might have eked out enough money to meet his basic needs (he didn't smoke), but not much more than that.
One thing never mentioned about Ray's time in Jefferson City is the fact he had a nearly exemplary conduct record, with the exception of the two escape attempts. Just once, he was caught with three packs of cigarettes, a pound of coffee and a ballpoint pen. The coffee was contraband. If it hadn't been for the two escape attempts, Ray would almost certainly have been paroled by the time he actually did escape.
Laster made several more desperate attempts to escape, including one attempt to saw out of death row (during which a guard captain was blinded). Westberg was involved in several more escape plots, but he had so much heat on him he could never personally use the routes he discovered.
Each day the prison's bakery would bake enough bread to feed not only the 2,300 men at Jeff City, but also the convicts housed at Church Farm and Renz Farm (two satellite honor farms, where most of the prison's food was grown and raised).
Tray after tray of bread would be stacked into a large box, and then the box would be loaded onto a pickup truck and hauled to the farms. The bread box would have to pass through the truck tunnel, where all incoming and outgoing vehicles were searched. But Westberg had been told that the guard did not open the bread box.
For years convicts had dreamed of escaping in the bread box, but everyone assumed it was searched in the truck tunnel (that they would poke steel rods through the garbage, for example). Westberg was the first to learn that the bread box wasn't searched.
So Westberg, who was assigned to work in the kitchen at that time, figured a man could get in the bread box, have a tray of bread placed on top of him, and pass right out of the prison (the box also had a lid over the top tray of bread).
He was right, but he would never be that man. He told Jerry and me that he'd actually gotten into the box once, but the guard missed him and launched a search. Westberg was warned, and hurriedly got out of the box, which was then filled with bread. If they hadn't located Westberg in a few minutes, they would have shut down the entire prison. No vehicle traffic would have been allowed in or out until he was found.
In the meantime James Earl Ray had also heard about the bread box, probably through Westberg. Although Ray had two attempted escapes on his record, he did not have nearly as much heat on him as Westberg.
There were those who joked about Ray, because of the nature of his attempted escapes. On the first one he'd fallen and stunned himself; on the second he'd hidden in a ceiling. It was even rumored that on the second attempt he'd gotten tired of hiding out, and had deliberately set off an alarm so he could get caught and get something to eat.
In any event, the prison officials never placed him in the same category as Davis, Laster and Westberg, who would unhesitatingly use weapons while escaping.
Those of us who had been involved in escape attempts did not consider Ray a joke. We knew that anytime you try to escape from a maximum-security prison you run the risk of being shot.
There was, however, some question in our minds about Ray's coordination. Once, while pulling a robbery, the victims refused to give Ray the money, and he fell out of a window and damned near killed himself.
When the day came, Ray walked up to the bread box, got in, and asked a guy named Don to cover him. Don told me later he was stunned; but he knew if he hesitated too long, a guard would catch Ray. Then other inmates would blame Don for Ray's capture.
The box was picked up, and Ray successfully escaped on April 23, 1967. Because Ray had previously tried to escape by hiding out inside the prison, the officials assumed this was another bungled attempt, and they began a meticulous search of the prison, which covered 47 acres. After several days, the prison officials concluded that Ray had actually escaped, and they put out an alarm.
It would later be learned that Ray's classification card contained erroneous fingerprints, which were initially distributed nationally. After Ray was arrested for the assassination of Martin Luther King, it was widely believed that those erroneous prints were proof that the King conspiracy began in Jefferson City, and that someone employed at the prison was involved.
The explanation is much simpler. There were always convict clerks assigned to the reception area, and the fingerprints could have been switched--either because Ray had paid someone to do it, or, just as likely, because some convict wanted to help Ray beat the system.
Since Ray's arrest for the assassination, he has become mythified. Some of the books written about the assassination describe him as a major drug dealer in Jefferson City, which is ludicrous. From 1961 through 1965 I used a substantial amount of amphetamine, and so did many of the people I associated with, and I never bought any from James Earl Ray. No one else I knew did either.
Although it is possible to live in the same prison with someone for 10 years and never speak to him, it is still an intimate atmosphere. You tend to know a great deal about people you've never met. The day after a stabbing, for example, virtually everyone in the prison who is considered "solid" would know who had done the stabbing. You would also know who had just gotten a shipment of dope.
So, even if I conceded the possibility that Ray had sold drugs, it would have been in small quantities, and for a brief period of time. Certainly not enough to finance his travels to Mexico, Canada, England, etc., after his escape.
And, although the FBI later claimed to have interviewed every convict in Jefferson City who had served time with Ray, they never tried to interview me, or Davis, or Laster, or Westberg or anyone I knew. I know they interviewed some inmates, but they did not interview the people most likely to know something (and also the most likely to tell them to go to hell).
I've always had trouble accepting Ray as an assassin. In prison I knew men who would stab you to death over a carton of cigarettes, or for even a slight insult. Ray was never that type. Guys told me he would hound you relentlessly if you owed him a quarter, but he wouldn't threaten you with violence. He simply hounded you (not that Ray was a coward, or afraid to fight, but he wasn't the type to start the fight).
That is why he could never have been a major drug dealer. In order to hang onto your drugs, people had to know that you would kill them without hesitation. (In the period 1963-64, there were 550 serious assaults inside Jefferson City, including hundreds of stabbings, which is why Time magazine called it the "bloodiest 47 acres in America." The scandal was so bad it led to the downfall of Warden Nash, who then shot himself.)
As a loner, it would be impossible for Ray to deal large quantities of drugs, because one of the cliques would simply rob him, and there wouldn't be much he could do, alone, against a clique with a dozen members. I've seen it happen again and again.
I've been amazed over the years at the naiveté of authors who have written about Ray's activities in Jeff City; the things they put forth as facts just simply couldn't be true.
An egregious example of shoddy workmanship is the book The Making of an Assassin by George McMillan. McMillan is the primary source for the widespread belief that Ray was a major drug dealer in Jeff City; that he smuggled large sums of money out of prison; that he used that money to finance his travels after his escape.
McMillan’s false scenarios portray Ray as a rabid racist in prison. On January 26, 1976, Time magazine devoted four pages to the King assassination, drawing heavily on material from McMillan's book, which was scheduled for publication later that year:
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 that 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 on the cell-block 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.
"Somebody's gotta get him," Ray would say, his face drawn with tension, his fists clenched. "Somebody's gotta get him."
Unfortunately, the scene described by McMillan could not have happened. There were no cellblock TVs in Jefferson City in 1963 and 1964. It wasn't until November 9, 1970--years after Ray escaped from Jefferson City--that inmates were allowed to purchase small black-and-white television sets, which they could keep in their cells.
McMillan, and through him Time magazine, are also the primary sources for the general belief that Ray financed his after-escape activities with money earned in Jeff City. That caused the Reverend Emanuel Cleaver, then executive director of the Kansas City Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (and now Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri) to send a request to Missouri Gov. Christopher S. Bond (now U.S. Senator) that an investigation be conducted into the allegations.
George M. Camp, head of the Missouri prison system, wrote to Cleaver, saying:
My findings are that there is nothing whatsoever to substantiate any conclusion that James Earl Ray financed either his escape or his activities after his escape through any means while he was an inmate at the Missouri State Penitentiary. During the six years that James Earl Ray was an inmate at the Missouri State Penitentiary, he kept primarily to himself and, other than for the fact that he attempted to escape on more than one occasion, he had only one conduct violation during that entire time and that was for the possession of three packages of cigarettes, a ball point pen and one pound of coffee...In addition, you might be interested to know that prior to the Governor's receiving your Mailgram, I personally discussed the allegations and conclusions in the Time magazine article with the author himself, Mr. George McMillan. In the course of our conversation, I pressed him for details regarding drug sales or any other illegal activities in which staff and/or inmates might have been involved. He was unable to give me any specifics but just responded that "it was common knowledge."
Shortly after Ray pled guilty to the King murder, Clay Blair's book The Strange Case of James Earl Ray was published. Thorpe Menn, then book editor of The Star, sent it to me to review. When I tried to mail my review to The Star, the prison officials refused to allow it to leave the prison.
My review took issue with many assumptions in the book, such as those centering on Ray's involvement with drugs in prison, and how he escaped from Jefferson City.
The prison officials knew that Ray's escape, and involvement in the King assassination, would forever blemish their professional records as penologists. They were not going to have me, or any other convict, expounding on the subject of Ray. The only thing publicity could do was further humiliate them. This is why I believe they steered FBI investigators toward convicts who really didn't know anything.
Meanwhile, William Bradford Huie, gathering information for his book, They Slew The Dreamer, had taken an interest in George Ben Edmondson.
I first met Benny Edmondson at the Algoa Reformatory in 1956, where he was teaching typing at the school. Benny taught me how to type. He was about five years older than me. He was a skinny guy with sandy hair and a cultured, slightly arrogant manner. I got to know him better when he came to Jeff City with a sentence for robbery. Benny was fascinated with the idea of escaping, although he never actually tried while inside the walls.
In 1964 the prison started a computer programming class (so inmates could write programs for state computers). Benny and I studied programming together, and in 1966 we worked in the programming office together.
Then Benny was transferred to L-Hall, an honor unit just outside the walls of the main penitentiary. Each day he would go to the state capital to work as a programmer.
One day he walked away, and it was rumored he took $5,000 of state money with him. Benny was eventually placed on the FBI's 10-Most-Wanted list and was captured in Canada, where he was posing as an engineer and had married a school teacher. It was then learned he'd been the site engineer for the West German Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal. (Benny had taken two years of civil engineering in college.)
James Earl Ray had traveled to Montreal while on the run, and claimed that he'd met a man named "Raoul" in Montreal, and that Raoul had furnished him with money, and eventually masterminded the King assassination—-using Ray as the fall-guy.
Benny Edmondson thought it was hilarious that William Bradford Huie thought he was "Raoul." The massive publicity surrounding Benny's capture caused Gold Medal Books to contact him and ask him to write 20,000 words of autobiographical data, so they could bring out an "instant" paperback book about him.
Warden Swenson of the Jeff City prison immediately issued an edict that convicts could no longer correspond with editors. Although Benny was eventually released from prison and returned to work for the engineering firm he'd been employed by at the time of his arrest in Canada, interest in him by then had died out, and the book was never published.
When Ray pled guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, his role in the assassination was a matter of serious dispute. The murder of Lee Harvey Oswald had closed the door to an open trial that might have answered the question of whether Oswald acted alone, or was part of a conspiracy. Almost everyone felt sure the government would want to avoid a never-ending search for conspirators in the King case, and would accomplish that by presenting its evidence at Ray's trial.
When, without warning, Ray was allowed to plead guilty and was sentenced to 99 years, without a public trial, millions of people suspected a cover-up.
Over the years, as book after book has been published on the King case, numerous conspiracy theories have been advanced: that the FBI was involved; that the CIA feared King would come out in opposition to the Vietnam War; that rival black leaders felt King's non-violent approach was a hindrance to black progress; that white supremacists wanted him out of the way for obvious reasons.
It seems clear to me that there was a conspiracy to murder King, and that James Earl Ray was involved. However, immediately following King's killing, U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark announced that the killing was the work of a lone assassin. It was important for the government to have a lone killer-—since blacks across the nation were rioting, and proof of a white conspiracy to kill the black civil-rights leader would have caused a racial explosion.
Long before Ray was captured-—before anyone could have known the details of what had happened in Memphis--the U.S. government had committed itself to the lone assassin theory; to such an extent, I was told later by white extremists in the South, that they were surprised by the government's failure to question even such notable racists as J.B. Stoner or leading figures in the Ku Klux Klan.
Ray, whose previous history as a criminal was notable only for its ineptness, fled to Canada after the killing, assumed a new identity complete with credentials, then fled to England where he was arrested trying to fly out to another country.
Among the first to rear his head in Ray's defense was J.B. Stoner, a lawyer who was also head of the National State's Rights Party (and who would later be charged with the bombing of a Birmingham church in which several children died). Stoner had trouble getting into the case, however, because no mainstream lawyer wanted anything to do with him.
For years after Ray's capture there was a close association between Stoner and Jerry Ray, James Earl Ray's brother. It is known that, after escaping from Jeff City, James Earl Ray went to Chicago, where Jerry Ray was living.
Moreover, Jerry Ray and James Earl Ray are close. When James Earl Ray bought the rifle that killed King, he mentioned that he was going hunting with his brother. Just before Ray's escape from Jeff City he was visited by his brother. Just before Ray escaped from prison in Tennessee he was visited by his brother. Jerry Ray told me in the 1970s he had taken pictures of the countryside around the prison and had sent them into James Earl Ray.
Jerry Ray was J.B. Stoner's campaign manager when Stoner ran for Governor of Georgia against Jimmy Carter. Jerry Ray had moved in with Stoner, and shot an intruder who broke into Stoner's office which was in the same building as the living quarters. Ray was also Stoner's bodyguard and chauffeur.
In 1977, New Times magazine suggested that Jerry Ray and "Raoul" were one and the same. It's a seductive thought. After the King shooting, one person living at the rooming house where the shot was fired described the assassin as heavy set with receding hair. That description comes closer to Jerry Ray than to James Earl Ray. The New Times article also asserted that Jerry Ray, if he were involved, might have been duped himself—-might have thought he was setting up something other than an assassination.
The Ray brothers, however, are too unsophisticated to have pulled off the assassination of King, and Ray's subsequent escape to England. (Several authors have said it was "common knowledge" in Jeff City that you could go to England and acquire an ID the way Ray did. In my many discussions with people such as Laster, Westberg and Davis on the subject of escape--and how to avoid capture afterward--no one mentioned that method.)
J.B. Stoner, however, would certainly have had the know-how for both, plus the white-supremacist background to explain why he would do it. Stoner certainly wasn’t the only radical white supremacist running around, however—-just the best known.
In the 1960s John Larry Ray (another brother) owned a tavern in St. Louis, and that tavern was an unofficial headquarters for the Wallace for President campaign. The Rays would have had many opportunities to meet racists.
Ray, although not personally motivated by racism, comes from a rural background where blacks are not highly regarded. Also, after he moved to St. Louis he lived in south St. Louis, an area known for its racism. Stoner's hatred of blacks would not have been offensive to him Ray; he might have viewed it as a little extreme, but he would have admired Stoner for being a rebel and for having a network of trusted associates.
Stoner is one of the most investigated people in America. In my interviews with him, I've found him to be eerily unflappable. James Earl Ray could easily have placed complete faith in Stoner.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the New Times article on James Earl Ray/Jerry Ray/J.B. Stoner is the following:
Over the years, state and federal authorities have come to suspect that Stoner's violent rhetoric cannot be dismissed merely as fascist ravings. This should have been driven home years ago when a surreptitious tape recording was made of J.A. Milteer, a Stoner associate, as he discussed NSRP plans with a Miami police informer. The date was November 9, 1963.
Milteer told the informant that a scheme was in the works to kill President Kennedy. The President, Milteer said, would be shot "from an office building with a high-powered rifle," and a patsy would be picked up within hours . . . "just to throw the public off."
The Miami police were sufficiently impressed with Milteer's seriousness that the Secret Service was alerted, and an imminent presidential motorcade into the city was canceled. Two weeks later, after Kennedy had been slain in Dallas, Milteer told the same informant, "everything ran true to form," and the right wing was in the clear because Lee Harvey Oswald . . . "doesn't know anything."
During the original taped conversation, Milteer also revealed a plot against Martin Luther King, one that involved an NSRP hit man named Brown.
Weeks before Kennedy was killed an informant quoted an NSRP member saying it would happen, and providing details that coincide with what did happen in Dallas. The same NSRP member said there were plans to kill Martin Luther King.