March 10, 1928. James Ray was born to his parents Lucille and George Ray in Alton, Illinois. As if it weren’t punishing enough to be born in Alton, IL, he was born into a very poor family of ___, James being the oldest child. His father was a petty criminal, but he tried his best to make a career of it. The family moved to Bowling Green, Missouri when James was two years old, but when George was caught and arrested for forgery, they bailed him out and moved again.
Up next was Ewing, MO, a little town just across the river from Quincy, IL. There the Ray family had bought a 60 acre plot of arid, terrible farmland.
Ewing was a part of Lewis County, an area so poor and so white that the KKK couldn’t help but take advantage of it. If you’re not familiar with the origins of the klan, they started out as a social club meant to yank money out of your pockets. They liked to burn crosses and harass the neighborhood minorities, sure, but their strength was tricking the rich and poor alike into giving them as much cash as possible— all for what was basically a clubhouse for racists. I recommend listening to The Dollop’s episode on the KKK in Oregon, if you want to learn more.
The Rays quickly latched onto the klan’s toxic beliefs, and it shaped James growing up. It wasn’t the racism that bogged down his childhood, though, because that was just icing on the cake. As a young boy he suffered from frequent nightmares, bedwetting, and stuttering. James was also a filthy child, almost never bathing, and owning just a few sets of ragged clothes. One of his teacher’s actually wrote in his report card that he was “repulsive looking.” James was an anti-social child, unsurprisingly.
Alcohol has an issue for James and his family. Taking after his dad, James began drinking, brawling in bars, and pick-pocketing at 14. At 14 years old, he had a small job running errands for a whore-house. The proprietress fired him when he was caught stealing a customer’s pants. His first run-in with the police was for stealing someone’s newspaper, and attempting to sell them back. A disgusting little black-market paperboy, our little James had become.
The cops let him off with a warning, and Ray very briefly set himself straight with a job at a shoe company in St. Louis. By the end of World War II, though, they fired him— I’d assume to give jobs to veterans who actually deserved them, rather than paying the filthy rat man to peddle shoes.
Feeling lost, Ray thought that his life might have been doomed to poverty or prison. There was, however, a light at the end of the tunnel— a place where anti-socialites of all creed and color are welcome: The U.S. Army.
With the war over, Ray wasn’t exactly thrown into the front lines where his instability might have been practical. Instead, Ray was stationed in post-war Germany. In the Fatherland, Ray had a hard time avoiding the same things that made himself an asshole in America. He found himself infatuated with the now-destroyed Nazi party. He was obsessed with the country’s bustling black market. Believe it or not, though, it was neither of those things that managed to screw it all up for him. In December, 1948, James was discharged for drunken misconduct and “general ineptitude.”
Back in the U.S., Ray moved to Chicago to start a job at a rubber company. Before the year was up though, Ray ran off to California and was arrested on a three-month sentence for burglary. He just couldn’t help himself. They put him in jail for 90 days.In 1952, he committed an armed robbery in Chicago, landing him a two-year sentence. In 1955, he committed a federal crime by robbing a post office in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Now I’ve only gone over a few of his bigger busts, and you’ll notice that there’s a few years between each of the incidents. You’ll also notice that he keeps making giant leaps across the country with each one– that’s because Ray was kind of on a cross-country grifting tour, and every time he screwed up he would try to make a run for it. These aren’t all high profile crimes, by the way– we’re talking about cab-robberies, stealing money orders out of the mail, and, my favorite thing on his rap-sheet “typewriter theft,” from Los Angeles.
Thanks to trendy douchebags, typewriter theft is once again a valid crime in LA.
On more than one occasion, Ray fled to foreign countries to get the heat off of him. Throughout his criminal career he’d spend time in Canada, Portugal, England, and of course, Mexico. It was in Mexico in the mid-50’s, while Ray was on the lam, that he tried his hand at being a porn director. Under the fake name “Eric Starvo Galt,” he mail-ordered some camera equipment from a few catalogues and conscripted the help of several prostitutes to make his tasteful erotic films. He had to stop when his girlfriend, who was one of these prostitutes, got so upset with him that he fled Mexico and went back to the states.
In 1959, he looked at a Kroger in St. Louis and thought “I can take ‘em.” After a failed armed robbery of $120 dollars, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Finally, Ray would be locked up for good.
Well, that’s what they thought, anyway. Eight years into his sentence, he decided that prison wasn’t really his thing. In 1967, Ray executed a stunning escape by climbing into a bread truck at the prison’s loading bay, and burying himself beneath the bread.
OH SHIT, PRISON’S ALREADY OVER
The next year of his life, according to more than one biography, isn’t very well known. What we do know, though, is that on May 4, 1968, he was in Memphis, Tennessee. We know he was checked into a hotel room, across the street from the Lorraine Motel, which was known in 60s as a safe place for african americans in the Jim Crow era. We know that at 6pm, he was sitting in the bathtub, balancing his rifle as he aimed it out the window at the balcony of Lorraine’s room 306.
Martin Luther King Jr., an American civil rights leader who paved the way for a cultural revolution throughout the late 60s, was staying at the Lorraine after offering his support to a local strike for sanitation workers. After stepping out of his room to speak with some friends in the parking lot below, King turned back towards his room, and was shot dead by a man who’s best childhood adjective was “smelly and anti-social.”
Witnesses said that a man matching Ray’s description was seen fleeing the parking lot with a large bag. It would be another two months before he’d see justice. The police found that he had checked into the rooming house under the name Eric Starvo Galt.
“I tried running a background on that name, but… No, it couldn’t be the porn director…”
Ray knew he had to get the hell out, so he first made his way upstate by train and bus, all the way to the Canadian border. Once he made it to Toronto, he acquired a replica of Mr. Ramon Sneyd’s birth certificate. Using it, he filed for a Canadian passport. Due to a clerical error, Ray’s passport was issued to the name “Ramon Sneya.”
About a month later, he’s on a plane to Heathrow, London. Less than a few hours later, he would hitch another flight to Lisbon, Portugal. From there, the plan was to get a ship to Africa, where he’d sink deep into the borders of a country the US would want to business with, and he could live out his life as a mercenary.
The issue, though, is that passport of his. With a typo in the name, Ray needed it fixed so it wouldn’t draw any attention. He postponed his ship out of London and contacted the Canadian embassy to try and sort out his fake name situation. Now since that process clearly takes more than a mere couple of minutes, Ray went to find a hotel room to wait it out in. He headed to the New Earl’s Court Hotel, possibly because he was an egotist and liked the look of his own name. Working at the front desk that night was a younger Jane Brookes, who said this of her encounter with Ray.
He checked into a room for about $3 a night (2 pounds for the Brits) and told her all about his little passport snafu. Pretending to be Ramon Sneya, he griped about the typo and how it would be a bit before he could get to his next destination. When Jane asked him how long he’d been in Canada, he told her that he’d been there for “quite some time,” perhaps his entire life, even. Now, when Jane heard that, she couldn’t help but notice the thick southern accent he had– something Canadians aren’t exactly hailed for.
Ray asked for a little help getting ahold of a UK newspaper: The Daily Telegraph. When Jane gave him the phone number, she pretended to look away and listened in on the call.
“I knew it was cheeky of me,” she said. Listening in, she gathered that he was looking for info on how to execute his “go to Africa and become a mercenary” plan, but I’m guessing the newspaper didn’t have a goddamned clue what he was talking about. Ray went up to his room, and Jane didn’t think much more of it until the police would come to her much later. At the time, she had no idea who James Earl Ray was, much less who Martin Luther King Jr. was.
Ray’s stay in London went about as well as you’d expect from this brilliant man, because it wasn’t long before he decided he wanted to stick up a local jewelry store. Valerie Goldston, daughter of the shop’s owners, recalled the day vividly in a story with the BBC. Ray had come in somewhere around the end of May, and without a second thought brandished a pistol.
“He was clearly American,” Valerie said. I have to imagine that’s a reference to the gun, but maybe they figured it out when he didn’t hang up his peacoat by the door.
When Ray began demanding that the couple get into the back room, Valerie’s father didn’t even believe he was robbing them. His wife, however, wasn’t about to take any of that improper rubbish. She charged at him, Valerie said, and in the chaos that followed Ray’s gun was knocked out of his hands. On top of that, Ray had chosen to rob the jewelry store that had just installed its brand new security alarm. Triggering it with his foot, Valerie’s father sounded the alarm and Ray got his dumb ass out of there. When later spoken to by the police, Valerie’s father almost refused to believe that their would-be robber was the man who killed King. Then again, the man also didn’t believe he was being robbed. 10 years later, when the US House of Representatives was investigating the possibility of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King, two men in black suits showed up at her father’s door. When they asked him to come with them for an interview, he refused.
On Saturday, June 8, Ray was making his way through the Heathrow airport for a flight to Brussels. As he passed through the lines to get on his plane, though, he was caught in the gaze of a British hero– an airport security agent named Kenneth Human. The guards would often watch the line to gauge any potential delays or hiccups, because if one person got slow, the line would back up all the way to the front door. Ray, who was very tall and darkly dressed, made an easy focal point to gauge how fast the line was moving.
When Ray got to the front of his line, he was the first person who didn’t have his passport immediately ready. That was strike one for Kenneth Human, who was definitely an actual person. Human, the real person who was not an android designed by the British government to catch terrorists, noticed that within Ray’s wallet was a second Canadian passport. Wanting to know why he’d have two, Human engaged his interrogation protocols and asked “what’s up with that?”
While Ray tried to explain that the second one was to fix a typo, he was quickly pulled aside by a special officer that was working with Human that day. From there, Ray would end up on the first flight back to America, and the manhunt was over.
WE’RE BACK TO PRISON
Once he was back in the US, Ray almost immediately plead guilty to killing King. Now what’s fun about Ray is that just as soon as he gave the plea and was given 99 years in a Tennessee prison, he wanted to dial it back. Ray began to insist that it was actually a conspiracy, and that he had been framed for the killing of King by members of the US government. He did not, however, claim to know who specifically was involved.
Ray was desperate for a chance to tell his side of the story before too long, so when a journalist at Playboy agreed to interview him, he thought this was his chance. His interview involved a polygraph and nearly 30 pages of coverage in the magazine. He wasn’t keen on discussing the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald, and became frustrated when compared to the assassin. The whole aim of the interview was to prove his innocence, after all– so he had to provide some details to make sense of it all. Rather than being anywhere near the scene of the crime, Ray said, he was simply driving his white mustang around Memphis on the day of King’s assassination. Hearing a description of the killer read aloud on the radio, Ray realised that the man they were talking about sounded an awful lot like him! So, Ray said, he ditched the white mustang (insistent on keeping that detail in both sentences) and made his way to Toronto by bus and train. From there, the story remains largely the same.
As far as the guilty plea, Ray said that was because his lawyer had coerced him into it.
“I fled from every corner of the globe to escape this injustice, and now that you’ve got me with my back against the wall I’m supposed to squeal? Fat chance! I’m innocent!”
“We’ll give you these brand new blue jeans.”
“Yeah, fine, I did it. You guys sure know how to break a man.”
While the pretense of the interview was to convince everyone that he was innocent, it kind of did the exact opposite. The lie detector test that Ray took spiked so hard on every one of his questions that he was practically mocking himself by letting that interview get published.
What’s interesting, though, is that Ray spoke to another journalist while he was in prison. William Bradford Huie approached Ray in 1970, and by that point he already had an impressive reputation. A short while after Emmett Till was brutally murdered by a bunch of spineless bigots, Huie managed an interview with two of them. After getting them to admit to it in his story, the guilty sentence they managed to avoid in front of an all-white jury years prior reared its ugly head again.
So this guy’s a kick-ass reporter, right? Well, when he interviewed Ray, he used his reporter vision to zap those stupid lies he was telling and turn them into good, good truth juice. To start, Ray pretty quickly slipped up a few details about his “I didn’t do it” conspiracy, and pretty soon he was answering questions about why he left his rifle in the bedroom with his fingerprints on it. “I wanted to be a famous criminal,” he said. Ray was convinced that he couldn’t be caught even if the world knew he shot King, and that kind of goes back to the same reason he pulled so many stupid robberies and was caught every single time– he thought he was so much smarter than he actually was. When he assassinated one of the most influential civil rights leaders in U.S. history, it was under the impression that then-Alabama governor George Wallace would be elected president in the 1972 election, and that Wallace and his black-hating heart would let him free the day he took office. He was such an unfathomable moron.
WE’RE BACK OUT OF PRISON, AGAIN
On June 10, 1977, the alarms sounded at the Brushy Mountain State Prison, just 40 miles north of Knoxville. The maximum security prison was dealing with a fight that broke out among two inmates before realizing that Ray and six other inmates had scaled the 14 foot wall with a ladder made of plumbing supplies.
A few of the inmates were stopped just short of a mile from the prison, but others, including Ray managed to haul ass into the Cumberland mountains. What’s funny about the escape though is that the alarms only helped Ray get away. With such a loud siren blaring from the facility, nearby neighborhoods began flooding the phone lines with concerned callers.
It was three days before dogs managed to track Ray down, but track him down they did. He was brought back to prison embarrassed, but unharmed.
THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN PRISON
Ray continued to moan about the conspiracy for the rest of his life. In the years 1978 and 2000, Ray’s theories were investigated by congressional committees, only for it to be deduced that he was the sole assassin of King. Ray wasn’t the only one interested in his theories, though. In 1998, Dexter King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s youngest son, visited Ray in prison. There is a photo of the two shaking hands, because in that meeting Dexter had come to tell his father’s assassin that he did not believe Ray was guilty. The King family had actually been maintaining Ray’s innocence for years, and argued that any of the subsequent trials for Ray were unnecessary.
Ray died on April 23, 1998. He was 70 years old, and had been suffering from kidney disease as a result of poorly treated hepatitis C.
https://www.biography.com/people/james-earl-ray-20903161 – Another bio
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/pete-hamill-james-earl-ray-captured-article-1.3244719 Escape from prison in 1977
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36434706 – Fleeing after MLK