The Children Who
Would Be King
(continued from Page 2)
Now on the lam, Ray landed a dishwasher's job in a Chicago suburb, only 10 miles away from where his brother Jerry worked. By mid-May he had called Jerry, and they began meeting. Soon, they reached John, and the three brothers held a summit in Chicago's crumbling Atlantic Hotel sometime near the end of May. The brothers discussed ways to earn money, including by kidnapping the governor of Illinois, or even a local star radio host. They also toyed with going into the porn business. Then James shocked his brothers. "I'm going to kill that n----King," he calmly said. "That's something that's been on my mind. That's something I've been working on."
James left his dishwashing job in late June. The day after a July bank robbery in Alton, Ill., for which the Ray brothers were never charged--despite circumstantial evidence that they may have pulled the heist--James fled to Canada.
By early October, Ray set out for Mexico. There, for the next five weeks, he led an indolent life, mainly in the then backwater town of Puerto Vallarta. His only problem in Mexico was a fracas that he got into one night with some black sailors whom he thought had made a pass at the prostitute whom he was with. But by mid-November, he returned to the United States, this time picking Los Angeles as home.
His only break from Los Angeles was a two-day trip to New Orleans in mid-December 1967. A cocktail waitress he had met asked him to pick up her two children there. Ray agreed, so long as the waitress, her brother, and one of her friends all signed petitions for George Wallace, who was then trying to get on the California ballot as a third party candidate. Once that was done, Ray drove to New Orleans. He told several acquaintances that he was going to Louisiana to see a brother. Though he later claimed he met the fictitious Raoul in New Orleans, it now seems likely that if he met anyone, it was one of his brothers. When he returned to L.A., he had plastic surgery to correct a too prominent nose, something a seasoned criminal like Ray would want to eliminate before becoming the target of a manhunt.
On April 1 there were press reports that King intended to visit Memphis later that week. On April 3 Ray arrived in Memphis. Radio and TV announced that King, who had also arrived in Memphis that day, was staying at the Lorraine. One bulletin mentioned King's room number. On Thursday, April 4, Ray reconnoitered the Lorraine. He picked his perch, a rundown rooming house, the rear of which overlooked King's room. Ray had rejected the first room he was offered--it didn't have a view of the Lorraine. Shortly before 6 p.m., King stepped outside. Ray, who had been monitoring King's door from the flophouse, moved with his rifle to a communal bathroom at the very rear of the rooming house. There, standing in a cast iron tub, he had an unobstructed view of the Lorraine's second floor. At one minute past six, James Earl Ray fired the single shot that ended King's life.
Ray would probably have gotten away with the crime if he had not panicked. But when he left the rooming house, he saw two police cars parked in a nearby fire station. Ray then threw a bundle containing the rifle against a store entrance. Its discovery within minutes was critical in identifying Ray as the shooter. Yet Ray, who was accustomed to international travel, still almost got away with the crime. He eluded authorities for 65 days, fleeing first to Canada.
Ray hoped to reach segregationist Rhodesia--but he never made it. He visited Portugal but did not have the time or money to reach white Africa. Frustrated by the language problem in Portugal, he returned to England. There, too, he ran low on funds, finally robbing a bank in early June. On June 8, as he was about to board a plane for Brussels, he was arrested at Heathrow airport.
What motivated Ray? A lust for quick cash (the $50,000) and his dismissive view of blacks (the refusal to go to the integrated honor farm, his bar fights in Mexico) are most likely. If there was ultimately a conspiracy behind King's death, a crude family plot seems more likely than an elaborate conspiracy involving the Mafia or the government. That Ray has lived 30 years after the murder is persuasive evidence that professionals were not involved. If they had been, they would have disposed of Ray long ago--as long as he was alive, he could have turned on them. If, however, the conspirators included family members, he would have an incentive to stay silent--or to invent phantoms like "Raoul." The truth is often painful--and in this case, a four-time loser with a gun changed history.
Excerpt from "Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr." Copyright 1998 by Gerald Posner. Pubished by Random House
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company