James Earl Ray, the convicted King Jr., broke out of the maximum security Brushy Mountain Prison in a hail of gunfire tonight, triggering a massive manhunt.

A spokesman in the governor's office at Nashville said Ray and six other men "went over the wall" at about 8 p.m. EDT.

"The escape occurred during the evening recreation period," according to Brooks Parker, a spokesman for Gov. Ray Blanton.

"The prisoners escaped using a homemade ladder made out of lighting conduit [wire]. One has been captured and there are still six at large. One of them is James Earl Ray."

At least three of the others also are convicted murderers.

The one recaptured was injured as he went over the wall. He was shot by the guards and taken to Oak Ridge Hospital.

FBI agents, not waiting for an invitation, rushed to the fortress-like prison buried in the Tennessee mountains 40 miles northwest of Knoxville near Oak Ridge.

Ray, 49, a Missouri prison fugitive when king was slain on April 4, 1968, was sentenced March 10, 1969, on his plea of guilty to the slaying of King, a Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader.

King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Ray was later arrested in London, where he had fled under an assumed name.

Ray shuffled through several attorneys, winding up with noted defense lawyer Percy Foreman. There was no testimony in his Memphis trial.

Almost immediately after entering prison, Ray recanted his guilty plea and has been trying to win another trial ever since. He has claimed, in an unsuccessful Memphis hearing to win a new trial and in interviews, that he purchased the rifle that killed King but did not fire the gun.

Instead, he said, he was a dupe in a conspiracy - a claim which has resulted in recent questioning of Ray here by members of the House Assassinations Committee.

He said his attorneys railroaded him and he claimed he was working for a man named "Raoul," who he though was a gunrunner, and had ween set up to take the blame for the killing.

The government claimed he killed King with a rifle aimed through the bathroom window of a flophouse. The rifle was found in a bag by the door of the building.

Ray's efforts for a new trial were rejected by one court after another, although there were many unexplained facets to the case - such as where he got the money to flee to, and around, Europe after the killing.

The assassination touched off rioting and burning across the nation.

In the nine years since Ray's arrest, speculation about the possibility of a conspiracy has surrounded the King assassination, as it has the slaying of John and Robert Kennedy.

Earlier this year the House established its special investigating committee to try to settle those questions once and for all. There were statements from Ray's attorneys that their client might be willing to give public testimony.

The Justice Department also reviewed the investigation of the King murder and on Feb. 18 issued its final report, saying:

"The task force has concluded that the investigation by the FBI to ascertain and capture the murderers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thoroughly, honestly and successfully conducted. The sum of all the evidence of Ray's guilt points to him so exclusively that it most effectively makes the point that no one else was involved."

Ray had contended that his original guilty plea had been coerced, that he had not been adequately represented by his previous attorneys, and that the evidence did not show the crime had been committed the way the prosecution had originally contended.

"Ray has known all along that, if it had been anyone other than he and if it had involved any other crime than the assassination of Martin Luther King, he would have gone to trial," Lesar said.

"Instead, it took him four years of strenuous legal efforts to get an evidentiary hearing . . ."

Lesar said he had urged Ray to continue to seek a new trial."I felt that . . . pressures are building to the point, evidence is building to the point, that in the not too distant future he could get a trial."

He said he had advised Ray not to speak with investigators for the House probe, which he called a "cynical exploitation of Ray.