James Earl Ray today resumed his 99-year term for the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after 55 hours of escape were quietly ended by six men and two bloodhounds who had pursued him up an inhospitable Tennsesee mountainside.
Ray's desperate dash for freedom, which began Friday night with an intricately planned seven-man climb over a prison wall here, played itself out at 2 this morning. Forty-seven minutes later, Ray - wearing his prison sweatshirt, dungarees and black track shoes with white stripes - was returned wet, muddied, handcuffed and dejected to the maximum security prison.
"I feel good," Ray was quoted as saying when dog handler Sammy Joe Chapman asked if he was all right. The capture came when the most wanted man in the United States was found lying exhausted and covered with leaves on the wet mountain slope.
From all appearances, the only assistance Ray received during his only brush with freedom since his 1968 arrest came from the one or two men he ran with - cellmate Earl Hill Jr., who was arrested close by three hours earlier, and Douglas Shelton, the last remaining fugitive, who was being pursued late today in the same area.
"He didn't have anything on him that he was given on the outside," said the warden of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Stonney Lane.
By sheer luck, Ray was captured after officials hearing suspicious noises on both sides of Route 116 northeast of here, decided to send their only pair of dogs, Sandy and Little Red, to the east side of the road. Across the shallow but rather broad New River they went, up the west bank and still higher up the wooded mountain.
The team pursued its quarry across a logging road, back into the underbrush - so close the pursuers could hear their prey - and into a powerline right-of-way. Then finally, in the woods beyond, there was Ray.
"It was random we took the [east] side," said Lane.
Ray, 49, was given a physical examination (normal upon an escapee's return), a shower, breakfast and a cell in the Brushy Mountain disciplinary wing. He was found to have suffered nothing more than scratches from his ordeal in these steep and rugged Cumberland Mountains.
He now faces prison disciplinary action and possible escape charges.
Ray's was the third apprehension in 24 hours, including that of Hill, who was serving two life terms for the shooting murder of a vacationing Washington, D.C., policeman, Lowell B. Bailey, and the rape and wounding of his wife.
Six hours and five minutes after Ray's arrest, the sixth of the seven fugitives, Donald Ray Caylor, 24, was taken into custody while walking along South Illinois Avenue in Oak Ridge, Tenn., anout 10 miles to the east.
But for millions, Ray was the only one who counted, for the escape was as rich in mystery and speculation - as the entirety of his life since April 4, 1968, when King was gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Ray was arrested in London on June 8, 1968, under the alias of Eri Galt. he confessed that he alone killed King and was sentenced without a trial.
Ray has since disavowed the confession and claims instead that he only purchased the murder rifle for others. Several officials and black civil rights leaders had expressed fear that Ray's escape might have been arranged from outside, to bring about either his death or ultimate disappearance and thus preclude discovery of some broader conspiracy in the King killing.
At 4:15 p.m. today two representatives of the House Committee on Assassinations, which is reviewing the murders of King and President Kennedy, arrived at Brushy Mountain to meet with Warden Lane.
At a special meeting of the committee in Washington earlier today, Chief Deputy Counsel Robert Lehner said "no aid from the outside has thus far been found." Lehner, who had been sent to the prison after Ray's escape, also told the committee there was no evidence to indicate that Ray had any funds or weapons to facilitate his escape. Investigator Edward Evans said it was unlikely that Ray had had any connection with the other fugitives before they were imprisoned.
State officials here were never shaken in their belief that, despite the cooperation of other inmates to cover the escape with a phony prison yard fight, there was never evidence of outside help.
They felt, too, that they were unfairly portrayed as mountain bunglers who somehow had facilitated the escape by not providing the additional security that many people thought was warranted for Ray. But officials responded that Brushy Mountain is the state's most secure facility, and that a federal court order prevents them from isolating Ray and requires that he be in the general prison population.
Tennessee officials' frustrations were voiced today by Gov. Ray Blanton, who told a Nashville press conference that he had asked the federal government to take over custody of Ray.
Since Ray "is a national issue and has come up with national connotations and national concerns, we feel like rather than expending more of Tennessee taxpayers' money, the federal government should take custody of him," said Blanton. The governor noted Ray's previous escape efforts and said state officials were "hampered by federal court order in our efforts to secure" him.
"So I'm offering him to the President," Blanton said.
The governor said he had sent President Carter a letter and also made his request by telephone, shortly after Ray's capture, to Attorney General Griffin B. Bell.
In Washington, Federal Bureau of Prisons director Norman Carlson said Blanton's request would be taken "under consideration. We have no idea right now where we would put him."
In the end, it was Brushy Mountain corrections personnel who terminated Ray's unauthorized freedom early this morning. It was an ending as spontaneous and restrained as Friday night's beginning was planned and bold - hooking a homemade pipe ladder over the wall near an unmanned watchtower and just beyond a hot electric wire and climbing to freedom before guards, their attention diverted by the feigned disturbance, could open fire.
About 10:30 Sunday night, the prison operation center was alerted that a resident in nearby Devonia had seen three strangers. Authorities responded and soon captured Earl Hill on a slope to the west side of Route 116 some five miles from the prison. Manacled, nervously smoking a cigarette, but looking clean and dry, Hill returned to Brushy Mountain in the back seat of a white prison car driven by Deputy Warden Herman Davis.
Warden Lane then declared the chances of taking Ray excellent as two men had been seen running in the same area - one matching the discription of Ray, one of Shelton. Security was tightened, roads blocked to all but law enforcement vehicles.
For three hours, Lane said, the dow team led by Chapman and Johnny Newberry "run him hard," still not knowing which fugitive's tracks the dogs and scented. Ray's last run for freedom was a desperate race over the wide rocky bed of the New River, across a slow ankle-deep stream on the east side of the river bed, through the coal-littered yards of the West Coal Co., where a conveyor fills rail cars with their payload.
The uphill chase followed, for three miles - variously, the woods, a powerline marked by a water-carved runoff channel and a rocky and potholed logging road, and then, high on the mountainside, hundreds of steep feet above the New River, James Earl Ray was found - having unsuccessfully tried to hide himself in the leaves.
Then he was back at the prison, from which Blanton says no man has ever permanently escaped.
The white prison car parked short of the administration wing entrance, and Lane and Davis escorted Ray up a short incline, 60 paces on the front walk, seven concrete steps, the double glass doors. A hush fell over the assembled reporters and police, and only the grind of motor-driven cameras could be heard.
Ray's left pants leg was smeared with mud, his hair was wet and his eyes made contact with no one's. In eight seconds he was inside.
Before Gov. Blanton's letter to President Carter was released, the Tennessee Commissioner of Correction, Murray Henderson, said Ray will probably continue to be housed at Brushy Mountain. Additional security measures are under consideration - a new watchtower in the northwest corner, realignment of the 2,300-volt hot wire
"But there is always something you haven't thought of," said Henderson.
Does that mean the jailed are smarter than the jailers?
Well, said Henderson, "they have 24 hours a day to think about it."