The chairman of the House Assassinations Committee said yesterday that it will conduct its own investigation into James Earl Ray's escape Friday night from a maximum security prison in Tennessee.
"I think we have to do it," said Chairman Louis Stokes (D-Ohio). "Here we have a famous prisoner who is the focal point of a congressional investigation and he escapes from a maximum security institution. I think we'd be subject to criticism if we just accepted whatever investigations that other authorities make."
The convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ray was still at large last night after he and six other men scaled the wall at Brushy Mountain State Prison, where he had been serving a 99-year term for the murder. One of the men in the escape and was captured almost immediately, while another escapee was caught yesterday.
Two investigators for the committee, chief deputy counsel Robert Lehner and his top investigator, Edward Evans, were dispatched to Tennessee and are expected to report back to the committee for a hearing late Monday morning.
"I'm going to propose that we conduct our own investigation of all the circumstances surrounding the escape," Stokes said, adding that Lehner's initial report from the field raised some doubts in his mind about how secure the Tennessee prison really is. Although the prison wall is topped with electrified barbed wire, Stokes said he understood that the wire stops short of one corner, where prisoners might squeeze around it without too much difficulty.
Stokes said committee investigators had interviewed Ray half a dozen times this year for the inquiry that the House authorized last September into the April, 1968, murder of King.
"Obviously this was organized on the inside, at least, and it was conspiratorial in nature," Stokes said of the escape. "I guess the fear I have is whether there was outside participation in the matter also, and if so, for what purpose. One possibility is that it was an attempt to get Ray to a place where he will never be found again. Another possibility is that it was an attempt to get him out to kill him. The question is whether he was a willing participant or whether he was lured into it."
Stokes also hinted that Ray might have some funds at his disposal. "I have information that Ray was getting a large amount of money" in connection with some of the recent publicity over the King murder, the chairman said, without elaborating.
The escape quickly fueled a wide variety of speculation about its manner and motivation. It was Ray's third attempt to escape from Brushy Mountain. He made several attempts to escape from other prisons and he successfully broke out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in 1967. He remained free then for more than a year before he was captured in London following King's murder.
"He's an escape artist," said George McMillan, author of a book about Ray called "The Making of an Assassin," which contends that Ray was essentially a loner who killed King for racial reasons. "Raymond Curtis [one of Ray's fellow inmates at Jefferson City] told me Ray just used to stare at the wall out there. He studied the cracks. I think this is about the eighth time he's tried to escape from various prisons."
McMillan doubted that "there's any plot at all, except with the other inmates he escaped with." He said he felt "the essential question is: If he's innocent [of King's murder], why did he try to escape? If he had a story to tell it to. And he's had access to the press for a decade. I think he realizes his alibis have run out."
Others disagreed. Ray's lawyer for some six years, Washington attorney James Lesar, said he felt Ray had simply given up hope in the courts and in the thought he might one day get a new trial. He started recanting almost immediately after he pleaded guilty, but it took him more than five years just to get an evidentiary hearing, Lesar said. "The U.S. Supreme Court turned him down last December."
Ray then placed his hopes in the House committee and its former counsel, Richard Sprague, Lesar said. Lesair said he warned Ray that "they'd already decided he was guilty" and that the House investigation was a "cynical exploitation" of him, but "he didn't believe me. Then two weeks ago, in a magazine interview, Sprague said Ray was part of a conspiracy instead of the dupe of a conspiracy."
"I think perhaps the warnings I'd given him had begun to sink in."