Who was James Earl Ray, and did he really kill Martin Luther King Jr.?

More than fifty years ago, James Earl Ray, after driving his white Ford Mustang from Atlanta, checked into the New Rebel Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Days before the trip, Ray had purchased a rifle in addition to a scope and a box of ammunition for the gun. On April 2, 1968, he had gathered the gun and a few belongings from his rooming house in Atlanta and set out on the trip to Tennessee.

The day after he arrived in Memphis, Ray, a small-time thief, would stand in a bathtub at a flophouse across the street from the Lorraine Hotel and fire one shot at civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., striking him in the chin and killing him.

Ray confessed to the shooting after he was eventually caught, only to change his story three days later, saying a mystery man named “Raoul” was the real killer. In the years that followed, other conspiracy theories would be floated by Ray. None were ever proven.

Who was Ray and is there any question that he killed King? Here’s what you may not know about him.

Early years

Ray was born in 1928 in Alton, Illinois, a city about 15 miles north of St. Louis. When Ray was 2, the family moved to Bowling Green, Missouri. When he was 6, his family moved to Ewing, Missouri after his father passed a bad check in Alton. The family went by the name of Raynes to avoid being tracked by police for the check.

Ray had a run-in with Ewing police when he was 14 -- he stole some newspapers to sell -- and ended up leaving school when he was 15.

He joined the U.S. Army in the days following World War II and was stationed in Germany.

He did not stay long in the Army. He was court-martialed for drunkenness and given a general discharge for "ineptness and lack of adaptability."

Ray took a job at a Chicago rubber company in 1948 and stayed there for several months before heading to California. By December of 1949, he was in jail, serving a three-month sentence for burglary.

Back home, but soon serving time

The arrest in California marked the beginning of Ray’s string of incarcerations across the country. In 1952, he was sentenced to two years for armed robbery in Chicago; in 1955, he was sentenced to four years in a Leavenworth, Kansas, prison for robbing a post office. In 1960, an armed robbery netted Ray a 20-year-sentence in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

Officials at that prison would be the first to learn that Ray was not one to meekly accept time locked up in a jail cell. While he was a marginal thief at best, Ray did seem to have a talent for escaping incarceration -- at least for periods of time.

On April 23, 1967, Ray escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary by hiding in a truck that transported bread from the prison bakery. It was his third attempt at escape from the prison.

After the escape

Ray would be on the run after his escape from prison in Missouri. He went to St. Louis and Chicago and then to Toronto and Montreal before heading to Birmingham, Alabama. In Birmingham, he got an Alabama driver’s license and purchased a white 1966 Ford Mustang.

He left Birmingham in the Mustang and headed to Acapulco, Mexico. After a short stay, he left Acapulco and drove back north to Puerto Vallarta on Oct. 19, 1967 -- five months before he would head to Memphis.

Once in Mexico, Ray decided on another line of work. He went by the name Eric Stravo Galt and took up a career as a pornographic film editor. When he realizes he has no skill in film work, he leaves Mexico around Nov. 16, 1967.

Ray went to Los Angeles that fall and worked odd jobs through the winter. He volunteered to work on the presidential campaign of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. On March 5, 1968, he had surgery on his nose. Two weeks later he would leave L.A., headed for Atlanta.

Tracking King

Ray arrived in Atlanta on March 18, checked into a rooming house on 14th Street near Peachtree, and purchased a map of the city. After King was killed, the FBI would find the map on which Ray had circled the locations of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the civil rights leader's home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City.

Ray was in Atlanta only two days before he left for a trip to Birmingham. There, giving the name of Harvey Lowmeyer, Ray would purchase a Remington .30-06-caliber rifle -- the Model 760 “Gamemaster” -- a Redfield 2x-7x rifle scope and a box of ammunition from the Aeromarine Supply company.

Someone who worked at the store would remember Ray saying he was going hunting with his brother.

He returned to Atlanta after purchasing the rifle and it was there that he heard news reports that King would be going to Memphis to support sanitation workers in their fight for better pay and safer working conditions.

On April 2, Ray packed a bag and his newly-purchased rifle and drove to Memphis.

Ray would later tell his lawyer that as he got near Corinth, Mississippi, he pulled the white Mustang off a stretch of abandoned road and tested the .30.06.

Killing King

A little after 7 p.m. on April 3, 1968, Ray, arriving at the New Rebel Motor Hotel in Whitehaven, Tennessee, used the name Eric S. Galt to check into room 34.

The next morning, Ray read in the Memphis Commercial that King was staying at the Lorraine Hotel.

Around 3 p.m., Ray left the New Rebel Motel and checked into a rooming house across a parking lot from the Lorraine Hotel. He was first shown a room facing west. He declined that room and was given instead a second-story room on the back of the building. It faces the parking lot, and beyond the parking lot, the Lorraine.

He paid Bessie Brewer $8.50 in advance for a week’s rent. He signed in using the name John Willard.

Around 4 p.m., Ray left the hotel and bought a pair of binoculars.

It is not known what Ray did in the two hours in between, but at about 5:55 p.m., using the binoculars he had just purchased, Ray spotted King on the balcony of the Lorraine. In a five-minute period, Ray got the rifle which was wrapped in a bedspread, went down the hall to the shared bathroom, goes in and locks the door.

Then, according to his confession, he stood in the bathroom’s bathtub and knocked out the screen on the window that faced the Lorraine. He lined King up in the sites of the rifle, he said.

At 6:01 p.m., as King’s driver, Solomon Jones, called out, “Dr. King, it’s getting cool. You better get a coat,” the crack of a rifle shot is heard.

The bullet hit King on the tip of the chin, fractured his jaw then exited his face. It reentered his body in his neck area. The soft-point, metal-jacketed bullet then fractured his spine in several places and came to rest in the left side of his back.

On the run

After the single shot was fired, Ray headed out of the rooming house and to the white Mustang. A package, the contents of which would later be used to help convict Ray, was left on the ground near the Canipe's Amusement Co. on South Main Street. In the package were a rifle and a pair of binoculars. Both had Ray’s fingerprints on them.

Police radio broadcasts shortly after the assassination warned officers to be on the lookout for a white Mustang with a single white occupant who had been seen fleeing the scene of the shooting. Ray headed south and east, back to Atlanta to gather some belongings from the 14th Street rooming house. In Atlanta, he abandoned the Mustang and boarded a Greyhound bus heading to Detroit. He then took a taxi north to Canada.

He arrived in Toronto on April 7 and hid in the city for more than a month. During that time, he was able to get a Canadian passport using the stolen identity of a man named Ramon George Sneyd.

He left Toronto for England on May 6. He traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, then returned to England on May 17.

Ray was arrested on June 8 at London’s Heathrow Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Brussels. An airport employee recognized the name on the Canadian passport the Ray had been traveling under and noticed that Ray had two passports on him. He detained Ray who was then arrested.

Ray was extradited to the United States where he was taken to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder.

Caught, confessed, convicted

On Ray’s 41st birthday, March 10, 1969, he confessed to killing King. He told the judge that he understood he was giving up his right to a trial and would accept a 99-year prison sentence -- an arrangement his lawyer secured before his plea. The sentence for first-degree murder in Tennessee at the time was death by electrocution.

Three days after he entered his plea, Ray sent a letter to Shelby County, Tennessee, Criminal Court Judge W. Preston Battle, saying that he was recanting his confession and requesting a trial.

He did not receive a response from Battle, so he sent a second letter dated March 26, 1969. Ray did not receive a response from Battle concerning the second letter, either.

On March 31, Battle died. A week later, Ray filed a formal motion with the court requesting a trial. That motion was denied.

After a series of appeals, and a denial from the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision that Ray’s rights had not been violated.

Ray was going to jail on a 99-year sentence.


Ray was sent to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, to serve his term. Ray would attempt to escape prison on several occasions, and on June 10, 1977, Ray and six others escaped from Brushy Mountain. With the help of hundreds of law enforcement officials and two bloodhounds, Sandy and Little Red, in particular, Ray was recaptured. He had a year added to his sentence. He tried to escape one more time, in 1979, but was quickly caught by guards.

Conspiracy theories

Through the years, Ray would tell a familiar tale -- that he was a patsy, set up to take the fall for the assassination of a national figure.

Despite initially confessing that he had shot King, Ray would quickly change his story saying a man who went by the name “Raoul” was the mastermind behind the murder. Ray wrote a book in 1992 that claimed the shadowy figure had provided the gun and set him up on that day in Memphis.

According to his attorney, in 1977 Ray took a polygraph test was part of an interview with Playboy magazine. The test results, according to Playboy, showed that Ray had killed King and that he had acted alone.

Ray did have supporters in his claim that the assassination was a conspiracy to silence King -- namely, King's family. King's family members said publicly that they believe King was a victim of a government conspiracy. "The economic movement was why he was killed, frankly," said Martin Luther King III in a 1998 interview with Newsweek. "That was frightening to the powers that be."

King’s family also backed Ray, publicly saying they believe he was innocent of the slaying. Ray met with Dexter King, King’s second son, in March 1997. Ray told Dexter King, “I had nothing to do with shooting your father.”

Later, King asked Ray directly, "I want to ask for the record: Did you kill my father?" ''No, no, I didn't, no," Ray said. "But like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer, and you have to make a personal evaluation.''

“Well, as awkward as this may seem, I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you, and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail,” King said. “And while it's at the 11th hour, I've always been a spiritual person and I believe in Providence.''

The King family would call for a murder trial that would never come.

In 1998, the King family asked President Bill Clinton to reopen the case. He agreed and asked Attorney General Janet Reno to handle the investigation. Reno assigned civil rights special counsel Barry Kowalski to head up the new investigation. In 2000, Kowalski released the findings of the investigation -- Ray, alone, was guilty and there was no government conspiracy.

In 1999, the King family won a civil lawsuit that had been filed against Memphis restaurateur Loyd Jowers. Jowers claimed that he hired a Memphis policeman to kill King at the behest of members of the mafia.

The family collected $100. They said they wanted to prove they were not trying to get money, only the truth about the assassination.

His death

Ray would live out his years in prison still claiming his innocence. In June 1981, Ray was attacked in the prison library and stabbed 22 times by three black inmates. He recovered, but required a blood transfusion. Doctors would later say he contracted hepatitis C from the transfusion.

In 1998, Ray died in prison of complications due to chronic hepatitis C infection. He had served 29 years in prison at the time of his death.

Sources: The Associated Press; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Knoxville News-Sentinel; The National Archives; Notable Biographies

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