Who Killed Martin Luther King? An American Murder Mystery

In the minutes after 6:01 pm on April 4, 1968, just weeks before King’s revolutionary campaign was set to begin, perhaps the last best chance for race-conscious progressivism in America dissipated as the blood flowed from a sniper’s bullet hole and onto the balcony outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The moment was captured in the iconic photo taken by Joseph Louw (below), showing Andrew Young and several others pointing to where they believe the shot had come from (though, it should be noted, no one at the Lorraine actually saw the shot). But bending down next to King — checking his pulse, as some have suggested — is a man whom no one else in picture knows, not really. He’s presented himself as a member of the local Invaders, a younger, more militant Memphis civil rights group, but he is in fact an undercover agent of the police, Merrell McCullough, code name Agent 500, whose intelligence was passed along channels that led to the FBI.

Agent 500 served as an anti-civil-rights spy under none other than Frank Holloman, who sat atop the Memphis Police Department after serving as one of J. Edgar Hoover’s closest aides for 7 years at FBI headquarters. Holloman was personally selected by Hoover to be in charge of the Director’s office in Washington. After what he described as a “very close” relationship with Hoover, Holloman became special agent in charge at the Memphis field office, then head of Memphis police, where he developed his own quasi-FBI of which Agent 500 was a product.

And Agent 500 is only the spy we can see in the photo. The area in and around the Lorraine Motel was dense with agents of the state on the day of King’s assassination. More of Holloman’s men were surveilling King from across the street, next door to the flophouse and Jowers’ restaurant. They hid behind windows covered over with newspaper, holes cut out for their binoculars trained on King’s every move. They’d been tracking King since he arrived in Memphis. An extensively researched article in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal in 1993 tells of Army Intelligence lurking nearby as well, monitoring King from a “sedan crammed with electronic equipment.” Meanwhile, Hoover’s Black Probe effort in Atlanta had developed a high-level mole in King’s SCLC, accountant James Harrison, to accompany the electronic surveillance that recorded King virtually anywhere he lived and worked. King biographer Taylor Branch describes how during those last days in Memphis “[McCullough’s] firsthand bulletins as Agent 500 complemented James Harrison’s FBI spy work on the inner deliberations at the Lorraine.” Even in King’s last minutes, we can see the long arm of Hoover’s law stretching into the last photo we have of King alive. It is an enemy of King who we see touching him.

Meanwhile, the man that the authorities would eventually apprehend and convict for King’s murder was somewhere south of Memphis, indeed in a white Mustang and quickly spanning Mississippi and Alabama on his way to Atlanta, which he’d reach shortly after dawn. From Atlanta he’d turn north toward Canada, and from Canada he would eventually fly to London. It was in London’s Heathrow airport that he would be eventually be arrested before boarding a flight to Brussels on June 8, ending a more than eight-week FBI-directed manhunt.

He’d been John Willard in Memphis, Harvey Lowmeyer in Alabama, Ramon Sneyd and Paul Bridgeman in Canada. Most commonly he’d use the name Eric Galt, with the curious middle name of Starvo. In the days and weeks after King was killed, the man eventually known to authorities as James Earl Ray likely changed names more often than he changed socks. He looked like a man running from the law, which was exactly what he was. Ray had been avoiding the law since his improbable prison break a year before. He’d donned and shrugged off identities in the year since his escape in April 1967, traversing the bulk of North America, from Canada to the southern edge of Mexico and back again. The carousel of aliases, the thousands of miles of crisscrossing the continent; that was Ray before April 4, 1968, as well as after. Ray looked like a criminal after leaving Memphis that evening, but Ray had always looked like a criminal.

Ray was a dyed-in-the-wool outlaw, certainly by nurture and likely by nature, with delinquent DNA tracing back 100 years to great-grandfather Ned Ray, member of the notorious Plummer Gang, a murderous posse said to have left a 100-man body count in its wake during the 1860s. Ned was hanged. James’ middle namesake, uncle Earl, was a carnival boxer who by all accounts terrorized family and strangers alike. Earl’s rap sheet begins at 10 years old; his entrance into the correctional system came at 11. James’ father George, known as “Speedy,” was himself a wandering criminal, the family trade he passed on to James. Moving about and adopting aliases was James’ father’s stock and trade. Speedy, cycling through a dozen or so surnames, changed the family’s name with such abandon that James’ brother Jerry later told the FBI during the King investigation, “I was 20 about years old before I knew my name.”

Whether due to the sins of forebears or simply being born into the dusty scrum of the rural lumpenproletariat, by the time of James’ birth the Rays had been left behind by American progress, scratching out an existence at the unraveled edges of the social fabric. James’ Midwestern childhood was nothing short of tragic, a scene of brutal poverty and isolation. On the run from the law when James was seven, Speedy stuffed the family of six into a small shack deep in the backwoods of Missouri, just outside the town of Ewing, population 350. George McMillan’s The Making of an Assassin (1976) paints a vivid picture of the desperate conditions the Rays lived under in Ewing. James’ teacher in the town’s little schoolhouse described his appearance as “repulsive,” reporting that young James would often show up in filthy clothes and reeking of urine. James flunked the first grade. Over successive winters, his father cannibalized the family’s tiny two-room house for firewood. Eventually there was no house to stay warm in. It could be said that James grew up in a house that was always burning down, a slow inferno in grim increments.

The Rays were outcasts, dirt poor, often hungry and unable to even be known by their real names, if they were known at all. In fact, the only time they were ever welcomed into any society was when the generalized tragedy of the Rays was punctuated by the horrific death of James’ little sister Marjorie, in the wake of which the town took sympathy on the tragic family in the shack on the edge of Ewing. Little Marjorie, just six years old, got into the meager bag of groceries left on the back porch by her parents, both of whom were often drunk. Marjorie found the matches. Gerald Posner describes what happened next, in Killing the Dream: “A moment later the family heard piercing screams and saw Marjorie run into the house, her dress in flames, the fire enveloping her head. She was dead by the next morning.”

The people of Ewing took sympathy on the Rays for a short time, but the adoption by the community was only temporary. In the end, the death of Marjorie only further isolated the Rays, whose matriarch descended into accelerated alcoholism and whose eventual nine members huddled in a one-bedroom hovel brought onto the Ewing property after the previous structure had been burned down one board at a time. James dropped out of school at 16, and after a halfhearted attempt at a straight life after leaving home, James eventually followed in the family tradition of crime.

But James, like all the Rays, was no criminal mastermind. He tended to get caught, despite his wayfaring and amorphous identity. But if there was any criminal talent Ray did possess it was the ability to escape prison once he got locked up. (Ray even escaped, in 1977, the Tennessee prison to which he was confined after the King trial.) During terms in prison in his twenties, Ray developed a long-term plan: to escape prison and then leave the country, to permanently escape the reach of U.S. law enforcement. During a bit in Leavenworth Ray tried to teach himself Spanish for Mexican asylum. Canadian refuge was also explored. But it appeared those hopes were all but dashed after an attempt at a big haul in a grocery store holdup landed Ray in the infamous Missouri State Prison with a 20-year sentence at age 31.

The grim Missouri State Penitentiary

The Missouri State Penitentiary, known to its inmates as Jeff City, was the first prison built west of the Mississippi, in 1836. Known as the “the bloodiest 47 acres in America,” the baleful and imposing gothic structure was described as a “medieval twilight zone” in a government study conducted around the time of Ray’s arrival. After an earlier failed attempt at a breakout, Ray devised an improbable carnival trick of an escape, enlisting to work in the prison bakery then folding his body into one of the bread boxes packed with loaves to go out to prison’s off-site farm. Once the truck had left Jeff City grounds, Ray broke out of the box and leaped from the truck. He started off toward Chicago on foot. It was April 23, 1967.

For the next year, Ray would travel to the southernmost tip of Mexico, up to Canada, and seemingly everywhere in between, as far west as Los Angeles and east to Atlanta. At some point in his near-constant travels the State’s story and Ray’s begin to diverge. Ray’s account is that in Montreal he’d put the word out along the seedy waterfront near the port that he was in the market for counterfeit travel papers necessary to sail out from the American continent and finally flee the reach the law. He says he was soon approached by a man named Raul. Many believe “Raul” to be a composite of perhaps several contacts; the state believes “Raul” to be a fiction. That Ray had spent much of his adult life seeking to permanently escape the US authorities by expatriation is generally agreed upon. In Ray’s account, Raul promised Ray a passport under an alias and cash to travel if Ray would run a handful of smuggling operations for him. Ray was an accomplished smuggler, having run a fairly lucrative amphetamine ring in Jeff City and possibly having recently moved middling sizes of marijuana within Mexico and into Southern California. He’d smuggled goods while stationed briefly in Germany after the war. Ray regularly smuggled himself out of prison. Smuggling was a comfortable hustle for Ray.

What began with a handful of runs into the US from Canada (Montreal was, at the time, a principal node in the French Connection heroin pipeline), migrated to gun-running across the southern border into Mexico. Ray circuited from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo and back once or twice before pushing Raul to make good. Raul had paid Ray fairly handsomely for his work, but the passport had not materialized. Raul promised the travel documents after one last shipment. Ray was directed to rendezvous with Raul in Memphis, where Raul’s wares would be shown to his buyer. Ray was asked to use his false ID, an Alabama driver’s license under the name Harvey Lowmeyer, to obtain a military-caliber rifle, a .30–06, and bring it to where Raul was meeting his buyers, on a somewhat seedy block of Memphis south of downtown.

While Ray waited for Raul’s deal to wrap up, he decided to finally replace a tire that had suffered along the almost 20,000 miles Ray had driven in recent months. It was nearly 6 o’clock, closing time, when Ray reached the garage up Main Street from the rooming house, and the mechanic told Ray it’d be the next day before the tire could be gotten to. It was on his way back south toward the rooming house, in the minutes after 6 o’clock, that Ray saw something from his nightmares: an unreal fury of blue lights and sirens. Main Street was suddenly teeming with cops, and the epicenter appeared to be the flophouse or nearby. Had something happened to Raul? That was Ray’s first thought. A sting? A deal gone bad? In any case, Ray wasn’t about to get any closer. He says he made a quick move to skirt the perimeter of the billowing crime scene and proceeded south, the quickest way out of town.

Read part 3.

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine