01 May 1998 James Earl Ray is Survived by a Family of Troubling Questions, by Deroy Murdock
Dead men tell no tales, but the questions they inspire can be immortal. This is true for James Earl Ray, Dr. Martin Luther King’s convicted assassin who died in prison April 23 of liver failure at age 70.
Alive and well, Earl Caldwell still wonders what really happened on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. He thought he heard a bomb. The then-New York Times correspondent dashed from his room at the Lorraine Motel. He saw a man arise from a crouched position in the bushes across the street. Facing the balcony above Caldwell, with their backs to those bushes, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and several of their colleagues stood in horror. They saw King’s face explode before he collapsed onto the second-story terrace. What Caldwell thought was a bomb was actually the bullet that silenced the civil rights leader.
But did it come from Ray’s rifle, as the official story insists? From the shrubs where Caldwell and others say someone sprang shortly after the commotion began? From elsewhere?
Ray’s death ends the King Family’s campaign to gain him a trial where the truth could be determined once and for all. Now that truth is more elusive and ambiguous than ever.
Ample evidence fingers Ray as the trigger man. Within a bundled sheet containing his alleged possessions, police found an Atlanta map with circles around King’s home and office. It also appeared Ray seemed to have stalked King from Los Angeles to Selma, Atlanta and Memphis. The sheet also contained a rifle Ray says was his.
Ray plead guilty to King’s murder. He quickly recanted, however, claiming his lawyer coerced his confession. But when examining the separate cases for Ray’s guilt, complicity and innocence, one sees wheels within wheels.
First, Ray’s bundled sheet was dropped on the sidewalk across from the Lorraine, presumably before he fled in a white Mustang. While the gun bore two of his fingerprints and a palm print, the spent cartridge inside was clean. Was Ray meticulous enough to wipe his prints from the shell, yet careless enough to leave them on the gun?
Ray was no trained marksman. Why did his rifle hold just one cartridge? Even sharpshooters give themselves some margin of error. Witnesses to King’s autopsy recall a whole bullet, yet it returned from the FBI’s crime lab in three fragments.
From where did the fatal shot ring out? Caldwell recalls activity in the bushes near the Lorraine. Police reportedly found fresh footprints there after the shooting. After covering King’s Atlanta funeral, Caldwell returned to the motel. “The shrubs had been cut,” he remembers. “The murder scene had been totally altered.” Apparently, local officials ordered the bushes trimmed. The notion that an assassin hid there suddenly seemed laughable.
Caldwell interviewed several witnesses who saw trouble in those bushes. “Solomon Jones, King’s chauffeur in
Memphis, said he actually saw a little puff of smoke and somebody firing from there,” Caldwell says. Jones was in his car in the motel parking lot facing the street. He told police the same story. Shortly thereafter, Caldwell says, Jones was jailed on what he considered trumped-up federal check-stealing charges. He refused to discuss the case with Caldwell after his release.
Caldwell also interviewed Harold Carter, a transient who sat in the bushes with his friend, Dude Wheeler, drinking wine and “watching the big doings at the Lorraine Motel.” Caldwell said, “Carter hears some rustling in the bushes. He says a man walked right past him to the front of the bushes. He said this guy shot King from the bushes, dismantled the gun, placed the barrel into his clothing, then leapt over the embankment and walked away.” Caldwell notes Carter later recanted his story under police pressure.
Police officers did not go door-to-door to ask the Lorraine’s guests what they saw or heard. To this very day, neither Memphis nor federal officials have ever asked Earl Caldwell what he witnessed.
Other questions scream for answers. What did former Memphis policeman Loyd Jowers offer to tell Shelby County D.A. John Pierotti in exchange for immunity? Did Betty Spates, an employee at Jowers’ diner, truly see him return from those bushes into his restaurant holding a rifle? Why was King’s security detail of black Memphis cops withdrawn the day before he died?
After the assassination, Ray rode to Toronto by bus, then flew to England and Portugal with a phony passport. The Canadian Mounties finally arrested him in June 1968 at London’s Heathrow Airport en route to Belgium. How did Ray, a petty thief and high-school dropout, suddenly join the jet-set?
The answers to these questions may lie in the secret federal files on the King assassination. Rather than conceal those papers until 2027, as planned, they must be released now. Meanwhile, the FBI, an intrepid Congressional panel or “60 Minutes” should get Earl Caldwell, Loyd Jowers, Betty Spates and others on the record, preferably under oath. Dead men tell no tales. Live ones do.