The regular after-dinner headcount in the A and B wings of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary had been completed about 6 p.m. Friday when the guard's voice came over the loudspeaker.
'The yard," the voice said, and, as usual, some 200 of the prison's 400 inmates, including James Earl Ray, filed into the recreation yard. By 7:30, however, the normal activity of softball, horseshoes and basketball had been broken. There was a scuffle in the basketball court. A prisoner nearby writhed seemingly in pain from an apparent injury to his leg.
Then a shotgun blast from a guard tower toward the northwest corner of the prison yard reverberated off the thick stones walls and sheer mountain slopes beyond.
James Earl Ray and six others had climbed a pipe ladder to freedom.
"How does America's most famous prisoner in that maximum security prison . . . escape so easily" asked Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), chairman of the House committee investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Ray's victim, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But for all his notoriety, all the aura of conspiracy that has attached to him, all the unanswered questions, James Earl Ray is to prison officials here essentially just another long-termer in a forrtess of dangerous men.
"We have people here who are more dangerous than Ray," says the state commissioner of correction, Murray Henderson. "I think we have a man more dangerous" among those who escaped, he added in reference to Larry E. Hacker, who was recaptured hours later.
"Everybody here is under observation all the time," Henderson said. It is, after all, the state's tightest security facility. "Listen, you can't keep a man loced up and locked down [24 hours a day]. The courts won't let you."
A federal judge in 1971 ordered Ray removed from the virtually continuous confinement in which he had been kept, essentially for his own protection, and that he be placed in the general prisoner population. Ray was to be treated like a normal prisoner.
That , apparently combined with an imaginative and risky escape plan, an unmanned watchtower and widespread cooperation by other immates, brought Ray his unauthorized freedom. Still unknown is whether that cooperation extended outside the prison walls or to the prison force.
Henderson spoke today of "distraction" and "negligence," but later revised that to say that if negligence is found disciplinary action will be taken.
Ray, for all intents and purposes, was just another prisoner. Housed in the A Wing, he worked in the prison laundry, had access to other inmates and was extended normal recreation yard privileges. He also, however, conducted media interviews here, and has been visited by members of the House Assassinations Committee.
Brushy Mountain Prison, wedged in the crevice of a valley between steep, precarious and wooded mountains, would normally look forbiding, but for the dominance of the Cumberland. Yet the mountains are part of the security; one-fourth of the north wall is the sheer sedimentary rock-faced cliff that rises above. The thick stone block wall that forms the rest of the prison walls joins the mountain solidly, and a barbed wise carrying 2,300 volts of electricity tops it.
There is 16 to 18 inches of spaec between the top of the wall and the wire turns prematurely to leave part wire turns prematurely to leave part of the wall unguarded.
Six guard towers sit on the wall. All but one, no. 8, near that northwest corner, were manned Friday night. Officials say that the added-on tower (it is made of wood instead of stone block) has watchmen only when there is trouble or rumors of trouble9.
So the props were in place Friday night. Why this particular Friday, When Ray was apparently nearing testimony to the House committee, is known only to those who broke out. But while the inmates tossed horseshoes, played softball and shot baskets, a group of men began assembling from plumbing pipes a ladder - a long stem curved at the top with stubs of pipes sticking out as rungs. Prison officials theorizde the pipe sections had been hidden in the recreation yard or under the inmates' clothing.
The ladder went up and was hooked over the wall, under the barbed wire. The men began climbing it.A passing kitchen worker decided to join in, and then a seventh and last man started. One hundred yards away and far beyond the closest manned watch tower came the report of a shotgun. Then more and more. One peliet hit one prisoner, Jerry W. Ward, 25, who was subsequently captured 100 yards out.
The other six were gone, into the woods, into the mountains, into the twilight. As the prison alarm system activated, a brief power failure - a matter of seconds, Henderson claimed - followed the escape, as did a telephone failure from nearby residents using their phones at the sound of the alarm.
Prison officials had to drive some distance to find working phones. Henderson concedes the existence of a conspiracy among so many people inside the prison walls, but he said there is no evidence of an outside one. "This is a maximum-security prison," he said. "We have hard-core people here who can't get along. They live by the inmates' code, so you don't know what's going to happen."
Stokes, citing all of the coincidences, including the absence of the vacationing prison warden, wonders about an outside conspiracy. "If there was outside participation," he said, the reasons for it are obvious, and the escape would have been perpetrated for one of two reasons; either that once Ray got out he would never be heard from again or that he could have been lured out for the purpose of killing him."