The brother of the man most people believe killed Martin Luther King Jr. lives in a miniature brick house near the languishing downtown of Quincy, Illinois. Inside, the brown carpet is mottled, and the place smells of mildew and unfinished TV dinners. It is teeth-chatteringly cold, mainly because John Larry Ray barely has two nickels to rub together after he pays the $300 monthly rent.
The assassin's brother has lived quietly here, eight blocks from the banks of the Mississippi River, at the intersection of College Avenue and — of all things — Martin Luther King Drive, for the past four years. He goes unrecognized on his sporadic visits to the library and the senior center, and that's the way John Ray likes it. No one knows of his fractured past when he drives his beat-up GMC van two miles down Broadway to sip a cup of black coffee in a back booth at Hardee's.
The anonymity he prefers will likely end this week when 50,000 copies of his book, Truth At Last: The Untold Story Behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., turn up in bookstores on the 40th anniversary of King's murder.
"I don't care about that. I care about clearing my brother's name," Ray says of his motivation to write the book, which is coauthored by Lyndon Barsten, a lay historian who lives in Minneapolis. "I've come back here from St. Louis to die," he adds. "And when I die, there'll be no more Rays in Quincy."
In an upstairs room of Ray's house, a four-by-six-inch photograph of James Earl Ray sits atop a chest of drawers. The man in the photo looks to be in his early 50s, which would put him a decade or more into his 99-year sentence as Tennessee State Prisoner #95477. James Earl looks handsome, his wavy dark hair gone silver at the temples. It's the only photo John Ray has of his brother. Their younger sister Carol Ray Pepper, a former schoolteacher who now lives in Mehlville and whose phone number is unpublished, has most of the rest.
Ray says nothing as he stares at the picture. The silence is broken when he's asked what it's like to be James Earl Ray's little brother. What, my God, must that be like?
"I never tell anybody," he replies, his tone flat and matter-of-fact. "I don't want anyone to know. Nobody. When I was in jail, fellow prisoners used to gawk at me. They knew who I was. I didn't like it. No, I don't like the gawking."
Childless and never married, John Larry Ray turned 75 on Valentine's Day. Thirty-five of those hard years were spent behind bars for a litany of crimes as long as your arm — burglary, bank robbery, fraud, tax evasion, jury tampering. Oddly, Ray has prepared for this interview a freshly typed list of the 52 jails and prisons that have kept a light on for him. No, the harsh memories have not yet dimmed.
"Leavenworth was the worst. When I was there, these guys tried to cremate me alive with a Molotov cocktail," Ray recalls, animated now, almost happy to bring it all back. "But I had this crazy cellmate who was knitting in the middle of the night. These guys would've burned me alive, but my cellmate, he started screaming so loud that they took off."
He goes on.
"You got to mind your own business in prison. In the federal pen in Marion, I saw a man put a homemade butcher knife clear through another man's chest — right through him." He snaps his finger and adds, "Killed 'im right there: Just like that."
The health gods have not been kind to John Ray. There was the heart attack in 1990, the ongoing battle with diabetes, frequent dizziness, and a series of strokes that have left him with a serious speech impediment. That last disability, says Ray, took root during his birth in Alton: "My dad says the doc was drunk and that he left an imprint on the roof of my mouth while pulling me out."
The three Baudelaire orphans in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events have nothing on John Larry Ray. His grandfather was a bootlegger, his father a career criminal who spent ten years in Iowa State Prison at Fort Madison for stealing cows. While incarcerated, in fact, George Ellis Ray got himself hung from his thumbs as he stood on tiptoes because the warden was so mad that he wouldn't do any prison work.
Aunt Mabel was involved in organized crime. Uncle Earl was a drunk, a perennial check forger and woman-beater, who, says Ray, once threw acid in the face of his own teenage wife. Ray's younger brother, Franklin, died in a car accident. His little sister Marjorie was badly burned at age six when she set her dress on fire while playing with matches and died a few weeks later of infection. Ray's mother never really recovered and in 1961, Ray recounts, "her liver had walked its last mile."
Then there was James Earl Ray, eighth-grade dropout, petty thief, drifter and perpetrator of the most unfortunate event of all.
The most accepted and conventional version of the King assassination is that the night before the killing, James Ray — on the lam after having escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in a giant bread box on April 23, 1967 — rented a room in a Memphis flophouse across from the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying.
At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, a shot rang out from a Remington Gamemaster slide-action rifle with a telescopic scope that Ray had purchased six days earlier at Aeromarine Supply in Memphis. A single bullet struck King in the jaw and neck and he collapsed on the balcony. Witnesses reported seeing the 40-year-old Ray throwing down a bundle and fleeing the rooming house in a canary-yellow Ford Mustang. His fingerprints were found on a pair of binoculars and on the rifle.
The assassination sparked race riots in more than 100 cities. After a two-month manhunt, one of the largest in U.S. history, Ray was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport. On March 10, 1969, having been assured by his celebrated attorney Percy Foreman that he faced execution if convicted, Ray pled guilty. With the plea, a trial was waived and a 99-year sentence meted out by Judge Preston Battle.
Two days later Ray fired Foreman, changed his plea to not guilty and, over the next three decades, made seven unsuccessful requests for a trial. Until he died at the age of 70 from liver failure in a prison hospital near Memphis on April 23, 1998, Ray maintained that he was the fall guy, an unwitting tool caught up in a wide-ranging conspiracy. It was the government and the Mob, Ray said, that conspired to kill King. The gunman, he alleged, was a shadowy government agent named "Raul," or "Raoul," as Ray spelled it.
In the foreword to Ray's 1992 memoir Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.? the Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote, "I have always believed that the government was part of a conspiracy, either directly or indirectly, to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Or as Ray's father, George Ellis Ray, once put it: "He couldn't have planned it alone. He wasn't smart enough."
Whatever the case, to John Ray, even all these years later, warm memories still surface when thoughts turn to growing up with James on the 56-acre family farm in Ewing, Missouri, 20 miles west of Quincy. "We played tag and swam in the Fabius River," says Ray, struggling to make the words cooperate. "We were kids then. We talked baseball all the time. Most things seemed pretty normal. James told me he wanted to take a bartending course someday and go to Ireland and open up his own bar."
Ray says his infamous brother was no racist, debunking a key motive many assigned to James after his capture, perhaps because he once inquired about immigrating to then white-run Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), or because he purportedly got into a heated argument with a Los Angeles bar girl who'd said something supportive about civil rights for African Americans.
Counters Ray: "I never heard him say anything anti-Semitic or anti-black. He had a black girlfriend for a while in LA. Usually racists don't have black girlfriends. And I remember him rooting for [Willie] Mays to win the Triple Crown one year. And did you know that his favorite ballplayers were Jewish?"
Fiddling with some wisps of white hair that spray out from under his black baseball cap, Ray confides, "My brother was never the same after he got back from the army in 1948. The army changed him forever. He shot and wounded a black soldier there named Washington, and after that the government started to control his mind. James didn't kill King. He wasn't the shooter."
Lyndon Barsten says he grew so obsessed with the King assassination that he looked into donating a part of his own liver to prolong James Earl Ray's life. "I wanted him to live in order to have had a real trial," says Barsten, one of the nation's leading conspiracy theorists on the Memphis murder 40 years ago.
"I always took at face value that James shot and killed him," Barsten adds.
That all changed during a vacation he took in Atlanta in 1993. There Barsten, now 51, had a chance encounter with the Reverend Hosea Williams, which he says altered his life forever. Williams, who died in 2000, was at King's side on the Lorraine Motel balcony when the civil-rights leader was gunned down.
"Reverend Williams, I remember, called James Earl 'Jimmy,' like they were good friends. He said to me it was a government plot to kill King because Dr. King had become a huge threat, a danger to the government because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War," recalls Barsten, speaking by phone from Minnesota. "I was shocked, horrified. Even though I was only eleven when he was killed, I was fascinated with Martin Luther King. I thought of him as the perfect man."
In 1995 Barsten began writing letters to Ray. "He would write back and tell me he had no time to answer my questions," Barsten says. "But I kept writing. In one letter I asked him if he wanted some music — that maybe I could send him a boom box. He wrote back saying he was dealing with legal matters and, besides, wasn't very much interested in music anymore."
Barsten, who teaches aspiring hairdressers at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis, has lectured about the King murder at the Congressional Black Caucus and has delivered, by his own estimate, more than 25 speeches at conferences and universities across the nation.
In researching Truth At Last, Barsten, who completed a year of college at the University of Wisconsin, submitted more than 4,000 Freedom of Information Act requests, scrutinized the records of James Ray's 7892nd Infantry Regiment and spent hundreds of hours over the past several years with John Larry Ray.
The 211-page book, long on anecdote and virtually devoid of attribution, is the latest "untold story" to stock bookshelves already teeming with assorted conspiratorial tomes on the King assassination. Theories on King's murder run far and wide, pointing the finger at Lyndon Johnson, or the FBI or the U.S. military. Some suggest the deed was done by the owner of a Memphis diner, or by the Mob.
The central premise in the Ray-Barsten version of events is that James Earl Ray, while in the army in the late 1940s, was subjected to numerous mind-control experiments. Truth At Last argues that Ray was often administered hallucinogens, including LSD, and that two years before the assassination he was under the influence of several government-connected hypnotists.
"James Earl Ray was almost certainly a programmed obedient patsy," asserts Barsten. "He was brainwashed. If you look into hypnotism, you'll find that 5 to 10 percent of people are very susceptible to it. And James was one of those."
In laying out their argument, Barsten and John Ray claim there's no credible way James Earl Ray could have killed King — that the angle from which the fatal shot was fired proves that the shot could not have come from Ray's flophouse room, and that the slug embedded in King did not match the remaining bullets in Ray's Remington rifle. Like many other King conspiracy theorists, Barsten and Ray also argue that the plot and execution of the crime were far too complicated for an assassin to have acted alone.
But Truth At Last's main thrust originates with the revelation of a single seminal event: A purported shooting in 1948 of a black soldier named Washington, which, Ray and Barsten argue at great length, led James Earl Ray down a ruinous path that decades later would lead him to enter his fateful guilty plea:
While on duty as an MP in Occupied Germany, Jimmy spent much of his time arresting AWOL soldiers. In so doing, James was involved in several shootings, but there was one particular shooting of a soldier that had a major impact on James, haunting him for the rest of his life.
In this incident, James wounded an African-American soldier named Washington, from Tennessee.... James felt horrible about shooting this soldier — horrible in a life-altering way. For the rest of his life, James appeared to be plagued with guilt, and always grasping for a deeper understanding of the shooting. Later, when speaking about the King case, he'd say, 'It all goes back to the shooting of [that] soldier, Washington.'
The shooting, according to John Ray, severed Washington's spinal cord and made him a cripple the rest of his life. "James tried to find him when he got out the service, but never could," says Ray.
Adds Barsten: "James never wanted to shoot this man. But I believe this was a test to see whether he'd do something against his will. I personally believe this was an early mind-control operation."
Barsten, however, concedes he was unable to find any military records that indicated Ray was involved in a shooting or that he served with a soldier named Washington. "It is all based on John's word," Barsten says.
Back home in Quincy, John Ray zips his black leather jacket against the chill and tries again to understand why his brother pled guilty to killing King.
"I never knew why he did it. It shocked me, because there was no evidence that James had done this," says Ray. "I think it all had to do with that soldier, Washington."
But how? It doesn't make sense.
"I know," he says.
In the book Ray recounts the 1974 visit he made to his brother's cell at the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. Asked to elaborate, Ray says his brother told him, "'I had no choice. Because they were going to bring all this stuff out about the shooting of Washington and they were going to make a race case out of it.'"
Adds Barsten: "I know that this plea bargain does seem hard to make any sense of."
In the late fall of 1967, John Larry Ray purchased a building on Arsenal Street in south St. Louis and opened a tavern. To pay for the building, Ray says, he plunked down the better part of $25,000 James had given him — money the elder Ray said he'd received from the Mob. John Ray first thought of calling his new bar Jack's Place, but he ultimately decided on the Grapevine Tavern, a homage to the "prison grapevine."
The tavern, situated across from Benton Park at 1982 Arsenal, opened New Year's Day 1968. Almost immediately, it became a magnet for government informants and two-bit criminals, and a popular watering hole for supporters of segregationist and American Independent Party candidate George Wallace, whose campaign headquarters was on the same block. ("We had his buttons and posters and everything. I voted for Wallace," says Ray. "Now, James — he always liked Nixon.")
According to Barsten's research, and from what John Ray has told Barsten of those days, the Wallace pamphlets were furnished to the Grapevine by St. Louis police officers who, in exchange for this political kindness, promised to look the other way if Ray kept the bar open an extra couple of hours past closing time.
In the book, John Ray recounts — and dismisses — the story of John Kaufmann, a former St. Louis stockbroker, and a local patent attorney named John Sutherland, both of whom were active in the Wallace campaign. The men were said to have offered Russell Byers, a notorious local art thief, a $50,000 bounty in late 1967 or early 1968 to kill Martin Luther King. (For more on Russell Byers, see Chad Garrison's story "The Rockwell Files," published in the June 6, 2007, edition of Riverfront Times and available at www.riverfronttimes.com.)
"That was all made-up," grouses John Ray. "That committee made it up to justify their $6 million budget."
Nonetheless, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in 1979 that while James Earl Ray indisputably fired the shot that killed King, it was quite possible Kauffman and Sutherland may have been "racially inspired" to put a bounty on the civil-rights leader's head.
Ray sold the Grapevine in 1969. A machine shop now occupies the premises, turning out safety glasses for industrial use.
On the afternoon of April 2, 1968, the phone rang at the Grapevine. It was James Earl Ray, calling for his brother from the New Rebel Motel on the outskirts of Memphis. James said he was there to meet the next day with a government agent named "Raul," a slim, red-haired man he'd met in Canada years before, back when he ran drugs and guns. Raul, James told John, had instructed him to bring the Remington rifle with him.
"Jimmy told me he wanted me to come see him in Memphis," John Ray recalls.
From Truth At Last:
To say he was in a panic would be too strong, but he felt it was urgent.... He asked me to meet him the next night.
The next day, I put a machine gun in the trunk of my Thunderbird, and stuck a couple of handguns under the front seat on the passenger side of the T-Bird in case they were needed, just in case something was going down. James was involved with serious people.
It was now the evening of April 3, 1968. Down in Memphis, violent storms had moved into the Delta. Raul was attired in a wet trench coat, looking like a true spook when he showed up at James's room, #34 at the New Rebel Motel. Raul told Jimmy, "We're staying for a few days in Memphis. There's a place located near the waterfront where we will rent a room."
Meanwhile, John Ray says, rumors had been circulating among the Memphis police that King wouldn't leave the city alive. King famously finished his speech that night with what some took as a premonition: "And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
While King spoke, John Ray remembers, he was walking into a West Memphis tavern to meet James. "He was drinking a few beers, which I thought was odd, because he didn't like beer — said it gave him headaches," Ray recounts. "He told me he was going to do a job, but he didn't know what it was — only that he was going to be the getaway driver. Then he told me he needed to go, that he had to meet some people back across the river."
Ray pauses. "I don't remember him even mentioning King's name or that he knew that he was in Memphis," says Ray. "And then I saw him leaving, walking out of the bar into the alley. It was like a scene from Casablanca."
On January 15, 1999, John Ray mailed a short, typo-specked letter to Coretta Scott King. It reads:
Greetings Ms. King:
I am coming clean on Rev. Martin Luther King, jr. birthday, and making available to you a copy of James Earl Ray's confession. The information I am making herein to you about the Washington shooting and brother James' OSS [U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency] is nothing new to the feds....
If you want to get on the right trail of the shooting of Rev. King, then I suggest you asked your good friend attorney General Janet Reno why is she holding information back of soldier Washington, and James Earl Ray's OSS connection with soldier Washington and Raul.
The letter arrived several months after Attorney General Reno, at the request of President Bill Clinton, reopened a limited investigation of the assassination, which found nothing to disprove that James Earl Ray was the gunman.
Looking worn from the hours spent retracing the road to infamy, John Ray says in barely a whisper, "James got caught up in something he didn't understand. He didn't know what was going down. He just thought he'd be the getaway driver. He was never a racist. Never."
Lyndon Barsten asked for and received from his literary agent the sum of $1,000 for his work on Truth At Last. "I just wanted that for expenses, even though I figure I've spent $40,000 over the past few years," says Barsten. "But it doesn't matter. This has been my life for the past fifteen years, and I need to move on. My wife hates this. She says it's never-ending."
For his efforts, John Larry Ray received $8,500, which, for a man who gets by on monthly Social Security disability checks, represents his life savings.
Of the money, Ray says, "I think I'll probably use it for my tombstone."